Sicilian Caponata

Sicilian Caponata

With the summer drawing to a close, all of the veggies that we planted several months ago are finally ripe enough to use. We have an abundance of tomatoes, several eggplant and herbs aplenty. Because of this, I decided to make caponata. Caponata is a Sicilian dish served as an appetizer or accompaniment, and it is truly one of my favorite things in the world. Served warm or at room temperature, it is rich, sweet, sour and filling. To me, this is comfort food. It’s not a quick recipe, so it’s more something I make on a Sunday when I have more time that I can dedicate to preparing meals for the week. It gets better the longer it sits in the fridge.

 

When I was in Sicily recently, I ordered it alone without any other courses. Although I scandalized the waitress (“What do you mean you don’t want anything else????”), I was full for the rest of the day (ok, that’s a lie, I had gelato for dinner). The recipe that I’ve shown here is more traditional. However, since I’m all for adapting food to account for preferences and what you have in your fridge (Italians, look away now), I’ve included some thoughts on how to adapt the recipe.

 

Serves 6

 

2 large eggplants, or 3 medium

½ an onion

4 ripe tomatoes

1 tbsp. olive oil

2-3 tbsp. sugar

2-3 tbsp. white wine vinegar

1/3 cup capers (ideally salted capers if you can find them, which should then be rinsed)

½ cup oil-cured black olives (Where I live, these are easy to find. If they’re not readily available, you can easily use Kalamata olives, but under no circumstances should you use canned black olives)

3 celery stalks

1/3 cup pine nuts

Oil for frying the eggplant (more on this below)

A few basil leaves, for garnish

  1. At least one hour before cooking (ideally several hours before), begin with preparing the eggplant. Wash and cut into 1-inch cubes. Place several handfuls into a colander (enough to create one layer) and sprinkle generously with kosher salt. Continue layering handfuls of eggplant and salt until all of your eggplant is in the colander. Let sit for several hours on a baking sheet/bowl/in the sink/etc. to allow the eggplant to release its liquid. Please don’t skip this step, as it makes a large impact on the final result.
  2. While the eggplant is in the colander, prepare your other ingredients. Slice the onion into thin slices and chop the tomatoes. Cut each celery stalk in half lengthwise and slice thinly. Rinse capers (if necessary) and chop olives (pitting them, if necessary).
  3. Once the eggplant has sat, it should have released a brownish liquid. Quickly rinse the eggplant to remove the extra salt, then squeeze gently to remove extra water. You can place it back in the colander or on a cloth to remove any remaining liquid.
  4. Bring a small pot of water to a boil. Add the celery to the pot and cook for 4 minutes. Drain and set aside.
  5. Heat a large pan over medium heat and add 1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil. When hot, add the onions and cook for around 10 minutes until they become more translucent.Next, add the olives, capers, and nuts. Stir and cook for five minutes.
  6. Once the olives and capers become fragrant, add the tomatoes. Stir and turn the heat down to low. Cook for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. You’ll want the tomatoes to have broken down a bit by the end.
  7. While this mixture is cooking, sauté the celery in a few teaspoons of olive oil for about 5 minutes. Set aside.
  8. Heat a large pan over medium-high heat with ¼ to ½ a cup of oil, depending on the size of your pan.Here you can use whichever type of oil you like for frying—many of the traditional recipes I’ve read recommend using a more neutral vegetable/seed oil, but I actually prefer olive oil. You’ll want to make sure that the bottom of the pan is completely covered in oil. When hot, add around half the eggplant. You’ll be cooking in two batches. Stir occasionally while cooking, around 5 minutes. The eggplant should be cooked, but not crispy or dark brown. Remove with a slotted spoon. If you like, you can place it on some paper towels to drain a bit more. Then add the fried eggplant to the other pan of vegetables, which should be done by this point.
  9. Add the celery and stir to combine. Next, add two tbsp. of sugar and two of the vinegar. Stir and cook for several minutes, until the strong scent of vinegar dissipates. Taste and add more sugar or vinegar to your liking. I prefer to add less at first, because you can always add more later. If adding more, cook several more minutes to let the vinegar cook off a bit.
  10. Garnish with julienned basil leaves and serve.

 

Notes:

  • I used walnuts in the pictures, because when I began cooking I realized I was out of pine nuts! Pine nuts are creamier and traditionally used in this recipe, but walnuts did the trick. You can also omit the nuts.
  • It’s better to use ripe, flavorful tomatoes as opposed to the watery, bland ones we often find in the grocery store. It makes such a difference.
  • You can eat this with a piece of crusty bread, over toast, on a salad, with a dollop of Greek yogurt, or plain (my favorite).


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