Sicily Summer Treat: Caponata

I discovered a 3-liter tin of 2009 olive oil (our own pressing) when I was cleaning out the cantina last week. Unaccountably it had disappeared into a dark corner and stayed there, resting quietly in the cool dark until several years of accumulated jars, bottles, almost empty paint cans, old containers with just a little hydrangea fertilizer left in the bottom, mops, and other detritus finally got hauled off to the dump.

Fearing the worst, I opened the tin and I confess I wasn’t totally surprised to discover that, despite the loss of the intensity of flavor and aroma, it wasn’t bad. I was expecting total rancidity but this was bland, unexceptional, with just a touch of the bitterness that Tuscan oil never seems to lose, and, most important of all, eminently useful. It had spent its life in a cool place in the dark and while it had lost a lot of that life, it was nonetheless a great oil for frying.

My daughter points out that, in company with almost everyone who’s fortunate enough to make their own or has access to a good supply of locally made oil, we use this year’s oil for garnishing and any other raw purposes, and last year’s for cooking, whether frying, baking, broiling, or anything else. But this oil was three years old.

Still, it seemed perfect for caponata, one of my all-time summer favorites. Since onions, garlic, peppers, and eggplant get sautéed gently for a long time in olive oil, you don’t need an oil with a pronounced flavor, which would simply disappear in the process. In fact, in the way I learned to make this emblematic Sicilian dish, you pretty much just keep frying things in the same oil over and over in succession.

caponata ingredients at Case del Feudo

Caponata ingredients at Case del Feudo

frying peppers at Case del Feudo

Frying peppers at Case del Feudo

My caponata teacher was a remarkable cook, Rosalba Lo Greco, who is in charge of meals at the Barone Beneventano’s agriturismo, Case del Feudo, outside Siracusa ( Occasionally Rosalba gets called on to prepare elaborate banquets for the baronial dining hall in the Palazzo Beneventano, an imposing palace that fronts on the main square of Siracusa, the Piazza Duomo, but most of the time she is happiest in the agriturismo kitchen, turning out dishes like this from deep in the Sicilian countryside.

Do I need to add that this should be made only when all these vegetables, but especially the eggplant and tomatoes, are ripe and fresh, preferably coming from nearby farms and gardens?

Eggplant in particular suffers mightily from refrigeration. If you can’t use eggplant immediately, leave it out on the kitchen counter—it will not go bad for at least another day or more, even in hot weather. Don’t peel the eggplant and don’t salt it. Salting eggplant is an old-fashioned technique that was once necessary to get rid of bitter juices, which have apparently been bred out of modern eggplants. If you cube the eggplant in advance and let the cubes sit on a rack to dry a bit at ambient temperatures, they will fry up nicely in the hot oil.

Here’s the caponata I learned to make with Signora Rosalba:

You will need:

  • About 1 ½ pounds fresh eggplant (I used the pretty mauve and white striped ones, which have thin skins, but any other kind will do)
  • 1 or 2 medium onions, peeled and diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped
  • 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil, or perhaps a little bit more
  • Sea salt
  • 1 or 2 sweet peppers (red, yellow, or green), cored and diced
  • 1 fresh chili pepper (serrano or jalapeño), cored and diced
  • 1 ½ pounds tomatoes, peeled and chopped
  • 1 robust stalk of celery, diced or thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 or 2 teaspoons sugar
  • A handful of green and black olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
  • A couple of spoons of capers (if salted, rinse very well), coarsely chopped
  • Freshly ground black pepper or a pinch of red pepper flakes
  • If you wish (see below): 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa or grated bitter chocolate; 1 or 2 tablespoons slivered orange zest; ¼ cup chopped roasted almonds; slivered basil for garnish

Cut the eggplant in cubes about ½ to 1 inch thick and arrange the cubes on a rack. Set aside to dry while you prepare the rest of the dish.

Combine the onions and garlic with the oil in a wide sauté pan and set over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring, until the vegetables have started to soften and give off a nice aroma. Add a good pinch of salt and the diced peppers (including the chili pepper). Stir into the mixture and continue cooking another 10 minutes or so, until the peppers are very soft. Set a strainer over a bowl and, using a slotted spoon, transfer the vegetables to the strainer, leaving behind in the pan as much oil as possible. Let the vegetables drain while you fry the eggplant.

Raise the heat under the pan to medium and add the eggplant—you may have to do this in two batches. The eggplant cubes should be spread out in the pan, not piled up. Sauté the eggplant cubes until they are brown on all sides. If the pan gets too dry during the second batch, add back some of the oil that has drained from the onion-pepper mixture. As the eggplant cubes brown, transfer them to another strainer over a bowl to catch any oil (there will probably be a good deal less oil from the eggplant).

There should still be enough oil in the pan to cook the tomatoes, but if not, add some back from the drained vegetables. Add the tomatoes to the pan and let come to a sizzle, then lower the heat and cook the tomatoes until they are thoroughly softened, and have given up most of their liquid to become a tomato sauce. (If you wish, you may puree the tomatoes, but I like the consistency that bits and chunks of tomato give to the finished caponata.) Once the sauce is thick, stir in the celery. Now combine the sugar and vinegar in a small bowl and pour it into the tomato sauce. Let it cook briefly, just long enough to amalgamate the flavors.

Stir the eggplant cubes and the onion-pepper mixture into the tomato sauce and let it cook very briefly, then remove from the heat and add the capers and olives. Taste the mixture and adjust the seasoning, adding a little more sugar or vinegar if it seems necessary, also black or red pepper if you wish. Finally, set the caponata to drain for 20 minutes or longer, so that it is neither too liquid nor too oily. It should be served at room temperature.

Some cooks garnish the top of the caponata with slivers of orange zest, or a sprinkle of torn basil, or a small handful of chopped toasted almonds.

Note that in Catania, on Sicily’s east coast, cooks often stir a small amount of unsweetened chocolate into the tomato sauce before adding back the vegetables. I think this probably comes from the long centuries when Spain ruled Sicily, and quite possibly the Spanish got the idea from Mexico where native cooks made beautiful moles with chocolate in the rich sauces. So caponata becomes a dish with a very long and complex history, even though it’s clearly related to similar Mediterranean combinations, like Provençal ratatouille.

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