CAPONATA SEASON

It’s that rarest time of summer, late August to early September, when for just a few short weeks it feels as if Maine has taken off for the Mediterranean. The sun is at its strongest and farmers’ markets are full of ripe tomatoes and fat, dark eggplants, sweet red peppers and torpedo-shaped Tropea onions. Big bunches of basil and mint lift their fragrance on the early morning breeze. Produce from our local farmers is so much higher in quality than what we get in supermarkets simply because it comes straight from the field to the market stall without the damaging chill of refrigeration. Years ago, Alice Waters told me that the fridge can be as bad for eggplant as it is for tomatoes, destroying rich, ripe flavors—I paid strict attention and I’ve had my eye on the local stuff ever since.

So it’s time for caponata, the Sicilian version of Provençale ratatouille, combining these late summer treasures with fine extra-virgin olive oil, plus the inspired addition of sweet and tart, sugar and vinegar, and finally a dash of capers, chopped black (or green) olives, basil or oregano and toasted pine nuts. My recipe—and it hardly qualifies as a recipe, more like kitchen notes—comes from many sources, including 100% Sicilian cooks like Eleanora Consoli, a cooking teacher who lives on the slopes of Etna’s v0lcano, Rosalba Lo Grande, who runs the kitchen at Case del Feudo, an agriturismo in the countryside west of Siracusa, and our old family friend Salvatore Denaro who calls it affectionately caponatina.

At its best, caponata is an opulent but simple treat, delicious on its own as a sort of cooked salad, or served beside a piece of grilled fish or meat, or even stirred into scrambled eggs for a very special Sunday breakfast. Best of all, for summer cooks, it can be made days, even a week, ahead, kept in the refrigerator, and brought to room temperature when it’s ready to be served. Iconically Sicilian, yes it is, but it’s also an iconic flavor of summertime itself.

frying peppers at Case del Feudo

Caponata shares family details with its Provençal cousin ratatouille. And just as cousins may share a prominent nose, but on one it will look striking and on the other simply plain, so caponata, you might say, is ratatouille given a Baroque touch of the exotic. In its ingredients and its technique, it pulls together all the strands that make up Sicily’s history—a little Roman here, a little Arabic there, a decided touch of the New World by way of Spain, the superb olive oil that is Sicily’s pride, plus the fresh and pungent herbs of a Sicilian orto or garden.

But unlike Provençale ratatouille, which combines all the ingredients and cooks them together, a properly made caponata involves a series of separate operations—cooking first

Rosalba’s eggplant frying in loads of olive oil

the eggplant and setting it aside, then the onions, garlic and peppers, to which tomato gets added along with the celery, which should cook briefly, just long enough to retain a bit of crunch. The eggplant goes back in at the end and the whole cooked very briefly, sauced with the prerequisite sweet-vinegar combination, to combine the flavors, but not to meld them together.

So here’s what you’ll need to make 6 to 8 servings:

  • A couple of plump eggplants, either dark purple or the pretty streaked ones, unpeeled but cut in 1-inch cubes or slender fingers
  • Sea salt
  • 2 medium red onions, halved and thinly sliced
  • 1 or 2 cloves of garlic, crushed and chopped
  • 3 or 4 red sweet peppers, cleaned and thinly sliced
  • 1 red chili pepper (optional), cleaned and thinly sliced
  • About 2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 ½ pounds ripe plum tomatoes, peeled and chopped
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 celery stalks, preferably dark green and flavorful, thinly sliced
  • About ¼ cup golden sultana raisins or dark currants, plumped in hot water
  • 12 or 14 pitted black or green olives, coarsely chopped
  • About ½ cup capers, coarsely chopped
  • Fresh ground black pepper
  • About ¼ cup pine nuts or blanched almonds, lightly toasted
  • Handful of slivered fresh basil leaves for garnish; or, if you prefer, crushed dried Sicilian oregano

One question that invariably arises: should eggplant be salted or used fresh? Eggplant was once considered very bitter; it was always recommended to salt the cubed pieces in order to “draw out” the bitterness. I’m not convinced that’s necessary but I still salt the cubes because they absorb less oil after salting than when they are used fresh cut. So toss the cubes in a colander with a small handful of sea salt and set the colander in the sink. Set a plate on top and weight it with something heavy—a can of tomatoes will do—and leave for at least 30 minutes—during which time you can prep all the other vegetables.

When the eggplant is ready, rinse quickly under running water to rid it of excess salt and spread the cubes out on kitchen towels to dry as thoroughly as possible.

Heat about half a cup of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat and add the eggplant cubes (you’ll have to do this in batches), turning and sautéing the cubes until they’re golden on all sides. Remove them to paper towels to drain as they finish cooking.

Another way to do this if it’s easier: heat the oven to 400º, toss the eggplant cubes in a bowl with 1/3 cup of olive oil, then spread them out in a single layer on a baking sheet and transfer to the hot oven to roast until golden, turning the cubes from time to time.

Combine the onions, garlic, peppers and chili pepper, if you’re using it, with about ¼ cup of oil in a skillet and set over low heat. Cook gently, stirring, 20 to 30 minutes, until the vegetables are very soft but not turning brown. Stir in the tomatoes and cook briefly, stirring, until the tomatoes start to break down, then add the vinegar and sugar and continue cooking until the sauce is thick and jammy, another 20 minutes or so. Stir in the celery and cook 5 minutes longer, just to start to soften the celery, then add the drained the sultanas, olives and the capers. Finally stir in the eggplant cubes and turn gently to cook for just another 2 minutes or so to combine all the flavors. Taste, adding more salt if necessary along with plenty of black pepper.

Remove from the heat and let the caponata cool to room temperature. Just before serving sprinkle the nuts and basil or oregano over the top.

Salvatore with his caponatina

 

 

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