I love caponata but I don’t eat it much as my family considers eggplant to be one of the seven deadly vegetables. Eggplant is a well-traveled vegetable. It apparently originated in tropical Asia and headed to the Middle East via India. Arab settlers brought it to Spain and southern Italy but no one knows exactly when. There is no record that the Greeks and Romans knew eggplant (my husband considers them lucky) but it arrived in southern Italy before explorers brought the tomato, potato and pepper from the New World.
Eggplant territory begins in Naples, or so they say. That the farther south you go, the more important it becomes to local cuisine. Caponata is a classic Sicilian dish that provides an explosion of flavors once it hits your taste buds. While there are many variations of caponata (with eggplant the main event), the dish almost always includes celery, tomatoes, capers and olives. Some recipes include raisins…not mine. The distinctive taste of caponata comes from its subtle sweet-and-sour flavor the Italians call agrodolce.
Caponata is a versatile dish. You can serve it as a stand-alone antipasto or as part of an antipasto platter or as a vegetarian main course. Look for smooth, glossy eggplant…although the vegetables you see above are not exactly that, having been trucked in by the grower to a farmer’s market.
Begin by slicing the eggplant then cutting the slices into cubes. Keep the skin on. Then line a colander with paper towels, salt the dices and set them to drain in a colander for 30 minutes. Eggplant that has been salted and drained won’t soak up as much oil when they’re fried. Supposedly.
While the eggplant is draining, cook the celery and onion in a heavy skillet. You’re making a nice flavor base now. When they’re nice and softened, remove them to a bowl.
Add more oil and sauté the eggplant dice until they’re lightly browned.
Next, turn to the Mediterranean big three: olives, capers and anchovies.
Return the onion/celery mixture to the skillet with the eggplant and add all the remaining ingredients except the pine nuts. Bring it to a boil, then dial it down and simmer the mixture for about 15 minutes.
Add the pine nuts, adjust the salt and pepper seasoning and toss in a little more vinegar if you feel there’s too much dolce and not enough agro. Let the caponata sit to room temperature or refrigerate to use later. Either way…it’s great!
Classic Caponata for Summer or Any Season
Yield: Makes 8 cups
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: one hour
- 2 pounds of eggplant, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes, about 8 cups
- 6 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 cups finely chopped celery
- 3/4 cup chopped onion
- 1/3 cup red wine vinegar mixed with 4 teaspoons of sugar
- 1 28-ounce can peeled plum tomatoes, drained
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 6 small green olives, pitted, slivered and rinsed
- 6 flat anchovy fillets, rinsed and smashed
- 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained
- 2 tablespoons pine nuts
- salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste
- Sprinkle the cubed eggplant generously with salt and set them in a colander over paper towels to drain. After 30 minutes, pat the cubes dry with paper towels and set them aside in a bowl.
- In a large heavy skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Cook the celery over moderate heat, stirring frequently, for 10 minutes. Stir in onions and cook for another 8-10 minutes, until both celery and onions are softened. Transfer them with a slotted spoon to a bowl.
- Pour 4 tablespoons of olive oil into the skillet and over high heat sauté the eggplant cubes, stirring and turning about 8 minutes, until they are lightly browned. Return the celery and onions to the skillet and stir in the vinegar/sugar mixture, the drained tomatoes, tomato paste, olives, capers, anchovies, 2 teaspoons salt and some grindings of black pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer uncovered for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently.
- Stir in the pine nuts. Taste the mixture and season with salt, pepper and extra vinegar to taste.
- Let the caponata cool and serve it at room temperature or refrigerate until ready to serve.