Category Archives: Caponata

CAPONATA DI NATALE (Christmas, winter caponata made with celery, almonds and sultanas)

Not all caponate include eggplants.

This  Sicilian caponata is certainly different to the Christmas fare we are used to in Australia, but it makes a perfect antipasto or salad as an accompaniment to meat or fish .

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Eggplants and peppers are summer vegetables and not in season in winter for Christmas, so this caponata is made with celery hearts, traditionally boiled first before being sautéed. In some parts of Sicily green, leafy winter vegetables (for example chicory, spinach, endives) are also used with the celery.

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I do not pre-cook the celery; I prefer to slice it very finely and just sauté it till it is slightly softened.

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It is a very unusual caponata with a combination of textures and flavourssweet, salty, sour… soft and crunchy. This recipe is one of the many caponate in my first book Sicilian Seafood Cooking.

Sultanas or currants are both good to use. Muscatels and raisins are OK as well, but their size may not be as visually pleasing.

Sometimes I toast the almonds, sometimes I do not. I made this caponata in a friend’s kitchen and on this occasion I used whole almonds rather than chopped ( the was no food processor/ kitchen wizz). On other occasions I have used pine nuts.

I have paired this with meat and fish but I really like to eat it on by it self… especially at the start of a meal.

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INGREDIENTS

almonds, 1 cup, blanched, toasted and chopped
celery, 1 large, but remove the outer leaves and only use the centre, pale green stalks and some of the fine leaves
onion 1, large, chopped
sultanas or currants, ¾ cup, sun-ripened
capers, ½ cup, salted or in brine
green olives, ¾ cup , stoned, chopped
white vinegar, ½ glass
sugar, 3 tablespoons
extra virgin olive oil, ½ cup
salt and freshly ground pepper

Optional
These can be sprinkled on top when the caponata is ready to serve:
Coarse Toasted Breadcrumbs, 2 tablespoons, made from good quality 1-2 day old bread and then toasted in a frypan with hot oil.

PROCESSES

Slice the celery finely and chop the leaves.
Sauté the celery with the onion in a deep frypan until it has softened, add salt and cook for about 10 minutes.
Add the olives, sultanas and capers and cook for another 2 minutes.
Empty the cooked ingredients into a bowl.
Agro dolce sauce (sweet and sour sauce): To the frypan already coated with caramelised flavours, add the sugar and heat it very gently until it begins to melt and bubble. Add the vinegar and allow it to evaporate.
Add the vegetables to the sauce and some of the almonds, reserving some for decoration if you are not going to use the toasted breadcrumbs.

Leave the caponata in the fridge, at least overnight. Serve at Room temperature. Top with the rest of the almonds or breadcrumbs when ready to serve.

SICILIAN CAPONATA DI MELANZANE as made in Palermo (Eggplant caponata and Eggplant caponata with chocolate)

Caponata has evolved over the ages to become the dish, which personifies Sicilian cuisine and is a popular dish during festivities ( perfect for Christmas). As you’d expect, there are many regional variations and enrichments of what must have been a very humble dish, as well as the personal, innovative touches from the chefs of ancient, Sicilian aristocracy (called monzu, a corruption of the French word monseur).

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Photograph by Graeme Gillies and food styling by Fiona Rigg. Cooking and recipe by Marisa Raniolo Wilkins (from Sicilian Seafood Cooking)

In Sicilian cooking the melanzana (eggplant) is said to be the queen of vegetables, second only to the tomato and the principal ingredient in caponata is the eggplant.

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If you eat caponata at my house you are likely to eat the version of caponata as made in Catania and it will include peppers as well as eggplant. This is because my mother was born in Catania and this is the caponata I grew up eating. The caponata which is common around Palermo has no peppers.

I prefer to keep my caponata di melanzane simple, but again, variations in the amounts of ingredients are endless. Some versions add garlic, some have oregano, several recipes include anchovies, others add sultanas and/or pine nuts or toasted almonds. These are all acceptable and authentic variations.

In keeping with the tradition of what is customary in Palermo, just before serving add a sprinkling of coarse breadcrumbs (toasted in a fry pan in a little hot extra virgin olive oil) or almonds — blanched, toasted and chopped.

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For me, Peter Robb in his book Midnight in Sicily captures the essence of a Sicilian caponata, when he describes how very different the caponata he was savouring in Palermo was to the caponata he had been eating in Naples.

I realised caponata in Palermo was something very different. It was the colour that struck me first. The colour of darkness. A heap of cubes of that unmistakably luminescent dark, dark purply-reddish goldy richness, glimmerings from a baroque canvas, that comes from eggplant, black olives, tomato and olive oil densely cooked together, long and gently. The colour of southern Italian cooking. Caponata was one of the world’s great sweet and sour dishes, sweet, sour and savoury.

The eggplant was the heart of caponata. The celery hearts were the most striking component: essential and surprising. Pieces of each were fried separately in olive oil until they were a fine golden colour and then added to a sauce made by cooking tomato, sugar and vinegar with a golden chopped onion in oil and adding Sicilian olives, capers …….

As Robb discovered: eggplant is the purple heart of Sicilian caponata – and it is the principal ingredient.

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There are a variety of caponate (plural of caponata) and the variations and inclusions of different ingredients in the basic caponata recipe are many.

Some traditional recipes use tomato paste rather than chopped tomatoes, some add garlic, others include chocolate (or cocoa). Many recipes contain nuts – almonds or pine nuts or pistachio, fresh in some, in others they are toasted. In a few recipes the caponata is sprinkled with breadcrumbs and sometimes the breadcrumbs have been browned in oil beforehand. Frequently herbs are added – sometimes basil, at other times oregano or mint. Certain recipes also include raisins or currants and some fresh pears. Several include fish, singly or in combination and include canned tuna, prawns, octopus, salted anchovies and bottarga (tuna roe).

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You will need a deep, large fry pan. If you use a non-stick frypan you may not need as much oil, but the surface will not be as conducive to allowing the residue juices to form and caramelise as in a regular pan. (After food has been sautéed, the juices caramelise – in culinary terms this is known as fond. Non-stick pans do not produce as much fond).

Although the vegetables are fried separately, they are all incorporated in the same pan at the end. When making large quantities I sometimes use a wok.

extra virgin olive oil, ¾ cup (depending how much the vegetables will absorb)
eggplants, 3-4 large, dark skinned variety
onion 1, large, chopped
red tomatoes, 2 medium size, peeled and chopped or 2 tablespoons of tomato paste and a little water or some canned tomatoes
capers, ½ cup, salted or in brine
green olives, ¾ cup, stoned, chopped
celery, 2-3 tender stalks and the pale green leaves (both from the centre of the celery)
white, wine vinegar, ½ cup
sugar, 2 tablespoons
salt and freshly ground pepper

Cut the eggplant into cubes (approx 30mm) – do not peel. Place the cubes into abundant water with about 1 tablespoon of salt. Leave for about 30 minutes – this will keep the flesh white and remove any bitter juices while you prepare the other ingredients. Although it is not always necessary to do this, the eggplant is said to absorb less oil if soaked previously.
Prepare the capers – if they are the salted variety, ensure that they have been rinsed thoroughly and then soaked for about 30 minutes before use, and then rinsed again.
Chop the onion.
Slice the celery into very fine slices and chop the green leaves.
Peel, and coarsely chop the tomatoes (or use tomato paste or canned tomatoes).
Drain the eggplants and squeeze them to remove as much water as possible – I use a clean tea towel.
Heat a large frypan over medium heat with ½ cup of the extra virgin olive oil.
Add eggplant cubes and sauté until soft and golden (about 10-12 minutes). Place the drained eggplants into a large bowl and set aside (all of the vegetables will be added to this same bowl).
Drain the oil from the eggplants back into the same frypan and re-use this oil to fry the next ingredients.
Add the celery and a little salt gently for 5-7 minutes, so that it retains some of its crispness (in more traditional recipes, the celery is always boiled until soft before being sautéed).
Remove the celery from the pan and add it to the eggplants.
Sauté the onion having added a little more oil to the frypan. Add a little salt and cook until translucent.
Add the tomatoes or the tomato paste (with a little water) to the onions, and allow their juice to evaporate.
Add the capers and olives. Allow these ingredients to cook gently for 1- 2 minutes.
Empty the contents of the frypan into the other cooked vegetables.

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For the agro dolce sauce (sweet and sour sauce):

Add the sugar to the frypan (already coated with the caramelised flavours from the vegetables). Heat it very gently until it begins to melt and bubble. Add the vinegar and allow it to evaporate.
Incorporate the cooked vegetables into the frypan with the agro dolce sauce.
Add ground pepper, check for salt and add more if necessary.
Gently toss in all of the cooked ingredients over low heat for 2-3 minutes to blend the flavours.
Remove the caponata from the pan and cool before placing it into one or more containers. Store in the fridge till ready to use and remove it from the fridge about an hour before eating– it will keep well in the fridge for up to one week.

When ready to eat, sprinkle with either toasted almonds or toasted breadcrumbs. I like to add fresh basil or mint leaves.

CAPONATA DI MELANZANE CON CIOCCOLATA (Caponata with chocolate)

In Sicilian cuisine there are a number of recipes, which include chocolate to enrich the flavour of a dish (see HARE or RABBIT COOKED IN CHOCOLATE) and chocolate in eggplant caponata is a common variation in certain parts of Sicily.

In the early 1500s, the Spanish conquistadors discovered a variety of unknown foods in the New World.Among these was xocolatl, (chocolate) obtained from ground cacao seeds. Spanish nobility arrived in Sicily during the 15th and 16th centuries and they brought their exotic ingredients from the New World to the island. This was also an ostentatious period of splendour and opulence for the clergy and the Sicilian aristocracy.

Although many traditional Sicilian dishes are said to be Spanish legacies, it is more accurate to say that some Sicilian cuisine incorporated both Sicilian and Spanish traditions.

Follow the recipe for eggplant caponata above and add cocoa or good quality, dark chocolate.

Cocoa: The majority of the recipes for caponata enriched with chocolate suggest the use of cocoa powder (about 2 tablespoons of cocoa to 2 tablespoons of sugar dissolved in a little water to form a thick paste). Add this mixture to the pan after you have made the agro dolce sauce and before you add the cooked vegetables.

Dark Chocolate: My most favoured alternative is to use 50g of dark, extra fine chocolate (organic, high cocoa content – 70%). Add the chocolate pieces into the agro dolce sauce and stir it gently as it melts, and then I add the cooked vegetables. This results into a much smoother and more luscious caponata.

In a modern Sicilian restaurant with a young chef, I was presented with an eggplant caponata where the chocolate was grated on top, much like grated cheese on pasta.

In my first book, Sicilian Seafood Cooking there is whole chapter devoted to caponata. I have also written other posts with recipes on the blog :

A MOUNTAIN OF CAPONATA – two days before Christmas 

CAPONATA SICILIANA (CATANESE – Caponata as made in Catania) 

FENNEL CAPONATA (Sicilian sweet and sour method for preparing certain vegetables)

CAPONATA (General information and recipe for Caponata di patate – potatoes)

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Caponata Catanese

A MOUNTAIN OF CAPONATA – two days before Christmas

Mountains of eggplants, peppers, celery, onion, capers and green olives…..a few red tomatoes, pine nuts, basil and the characteristic caramelized sugar and vinegar to deglaze the pan that makes the agro – dolce sauce for caponata.

Two days before Christmas and the caponata needs to be made so that the flavours mellow.

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In a couple of days it will be perfect!

Ready for more fresh basil and pine-nuts and ready to be presented to guests. The first lot will be on Christmas eve – it will be served as the antipasto without any other food, just a little, good quality, fresh bread for those who wish to mop up the juices.

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For recipes see:

Caponata (General Information and Recipe for Caponata di Patate – potatoes)

Caponata Siciliana (Catanese – Caponata As Made in Catania). This one contains peppers (capsicums).

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Fennel Caponata (Sicilian Sweet and Sour Method for Preparing Certain Vegetables).

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This caponata is made with celery

FENNEL CAPONATA (Sicilian sweet and sour method for preparing certain vegetables).

Fennel is still looking really good at the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne.

Select the round specimens when you can – these are known as the male bulbs. The female ones are flatter and reputed to be not as tasty because their energy is going into sprouting and going to seed – this is why they are not as round.

Usually when I make caponata I fry the vegetables separately to best preserve the flavour of the individual vegetables and accommodate the different cooking time each vegetable needs, but because the celery and fennel have similar textures I  generally cook them at the same time.

All caponate (plural) have an essential agro-dolce (sweet and sour) sauce that makes caponata what it is.

INGREDIENTS
1 medium sized fennel
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 tender celery stalk and some pale green leaves, finely chopped
¼ cup green olives, pitted and sliced
¼ cup capers (if salted, rinsed and soaked)
1 ripe tomato, peeled and chopped (or canned)
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbs wine vinegar, white
salt and pepper to taste

PROCESSES
Prepare the fennel:
Remove any outer layers of the fennel that look damaged, trim the base and discard.  Keep any young, soft fennel fronds to add to the caponata.
Slice the fennel bulbs in half vertically and then into quarters. Continue to cut the fennel into thin slices keeping them attached at the bottom.
Place extra virgin olive oil in the pan and when it is hot add the onion, fennel and celery and sauté until they begin to colour.
Add the olives, capers, tomato and salt. Cover and simmer gently until the fennel has softened (10-15 mins).
Remove the contents from the pan, add sugar to the same pan and stir over medium heat, When it begins to caramelize add the vinegar and evaporate. This is the essential agro-dolce (sweet and sour) sauce.
Return all the contents back into the pan and stir through.

Caponata is presented cold.

Other Fennel Recipes:

Fennel – male and female shapes

Tortino di finocchi (fennel flan)

Fennel and orange salad

Fennel and Potato soup

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CAPONATA SICILIANA (CATANESE – Caponata as made in Catania)

The principal and most common flavourings that characterise a Sicilian caponata are: the celery, capers, green olives and the sweet and sour, caramelised sauce made with vinegar and sugar (the agro dolce).

Caponata is commonly made with eggplants (popular in Palermo) but my mother’s family’s version of caponata contains peppers (capsicums) as one of the principal ingredients. Her family come from Catania and this is a local variation in many other parts of Sicily as well. In fact, I have eaten this variation in restaurants in the following Sicilian locations : Syracuse, Catania, Sciacca, Mazara del Vallo, Agrigento, Ragusa Ibla and Caltagirone.  

Sicilians will keep on arguing about which  is the true caponata. Some traditional recipes use tomato paste rather than chopped tomatoes. Some add garlic, others chocolate (or cocoa). Many recipes contain nuts – almonds or pine nuts or pistachio, in others herbs are added – sometimes basil, at other times oregano or mint. Certain recipes also include raisins or currants and some, fresh pears. One of my neighbours whose family also comes from Catania adds potatoes to his.

It is now the perfect season for making caponata – the peppers are sweet and the eggplants have not yet developed too many seeds (this is something that happens at the end of their growing season).

I always fry my vegetables separately because vegetables cook at different rates and it is far better to fry or sauté food in batches than crowd the pan.

Traditionally in caponata, the celery is pre-cooked in salted, boiling water before being added to the other ingredients. However, because I like the taste of the crunchy celery I have never pre-cooked it.

The legacy of my grandmother’s caponata lives on. My friends who have tasted my caponata now cook it for themselves.

I cooked the caponata for one of my cousins (the son of my mother’s sister) who visited me In Melbourne from the US. He and his wife loved it and he felt very nostalgic about his mother’s cooking ( my aunt/ his mother died several years ago). He asked me to email him the recipe. I did and he wrote back:

As I read you recipe on “caponata” I could smell the flavours ( like when my mother was making it).

He is now cooking caponata for his friends and family in the US….

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This version of caponata was published in the summer issue of the magazine, Italianicious (Essence of Italy, Dec 2009). The summer issue was a special edition on Sicily and I was asked to contribute. Each issue of Italianicious contains information and stories about all things Italian in Italy and in Australia.

Do not feel intimidated by the long list of steps to cook it. It really is very simple.

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INGREDIENTS
extra virgin olive oil, 1½ cups (more or less – depending how much the vegetables will absorb) 
eggplants, 1-2  large, dark skinned variety,
peppers, 3, preferably 1 green, 1 red, 1 yellow (variation of colour is mainly for appearance, but the red and yellow ones taste sweeter)
onion, 1, large, sliced thinly
red tomatoes, 2 medium size, peeled and chopped, or 2 tablespoons of tomato paste and a little water
capers, ½ cup, salted or in brine
green olives, ¾ cup, stoned, chopped
celery, 2-3 tender stalks and the pale green leaves (both from the centre of the celery)
white, wine vinegar, ½ cup 
sugar, 2 tablespoons 
salt and freshly ground pepper 
 
PROCESSES
Cut the eggplant into cubes (approx 30mm) – do not peel. Place the cubes into abundant water with about 1 tablespoon of salt. Leave for about 30 minutes – this will keep the flesh white and the eggplant is said to absorb less oil if soaked previously. 
Prepare the capers – if they are the salted variety, ensure they have been rinsed thoroughly and then soaked for about 30 minutes before use, and then rinsed again.
Cut the peppers into slices (approx 20mm) or into rectangular shapes.
Slice the onion.
Slice the celery sticks and the green leaves finely.
Peel, and coarsely chop the tomatoes (or use tomato paste).
Drain the eggplants and squeeze them to remove as much water as possible – I use a clean tea towel.
Heat a large frypan over medium heat with ¾ cup of the extra virgin olive oil. 
Add eggplant cubes and sauté until soft and golden (about 10-12 minutes). Place the drained eggplants into a large bowl and set aside (all of the vegetables will be added to this same bowl). If you want to, drain the oil from the eggplants back into the same frypan and re-use this oil to fry the next ingredients – the peppers.
Add new oil (to the left-over eggplant oil) plus a little salt and sauté the peppers, until wilted and beginning to turn brown (about 10-12 minutes). Remove the peppers from the pan and drain the oil from the peppers back into the same frypan. Place the peppers in the bowl with the eggplants.
Add a little more oil to the pan and sauté the celery gently for 5-7 minutes, so that it retains some of its crispness (in more traditional recipes, the celery is always boiled until soft before being sautéed). Sprinkle the celery with a little salt while it is cooking. 
Remove the celery from the pan and add it to the eggplants and peppers. 
Sauté the onion having added a little more oil to the frypan. Add a little salt and cook until translucent.
Add the tomatoes or the tomato paste (with a little water) to the onions, and allow their juice to evaporate. Add the capers and olives. Allow these ingredients to cook gently for 1- 2 minutes.
Empty the contents of the frypan into the bowl with the other cooked vegetables.
 

For the agro- dolce sauce (sweet and sour sauce):

Add the sugar to the frypan (already coated with the caramelised flavours from the vegetables). Heat it very gently until it begins to melt and bubble. Add the vinegar and evaporate.
Incorporate the cooked vegetables into the frypan with the agro-dolce sauce.
Add ground pepper, check for salt and add more if necessary. Gently toss all of the ingredients over low heat for 2-3 minutes to blend the flavours.
Remove the caponata from the pan and cool before placing it into one or more containers. 
Store in the fridge until ready to use – it will keep well for up to one week and it improves with age.
*** I first published this post In Feb 2010.
In my Book Sicilian Seafood Cooking, there is a whole chapter devoted to Caponata – made with various vegetables.
 Sicilian Seafood Cooking was first published in Nov 2011 and republished in Dec 2014.
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CAPONATA of Potatoes (General information and recipe for Caponata di patate)

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I am very pleased that one of my recipes (Caponata, Perfect for Christmas) has been published in the latest issue of Italianicious (Volume 5 issue 4, Dec 2009 -Feb 2010). This magazine is published in Sydney and has an Italian/Australian specific content with many recipes, articles and information about food, restaurants, wine and travel.

That particular recipe of caponata published in Italianicious is from my mother’s family originally from Catania (a city on east coast of Sicily) and it is interesting that my father’s family, who are from Ragusa (two hours drive from Catania), do not cook caponata at all. The photo is of Via Bellini in Catania.

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Caponata personifies Sicilian cuisine and as you’d expect, there are many regional variations of this recipe. Some of you may be surprised that this version of caponata contains peppers as well as eggplants. The most common recipes for caponata only use eggplants as the principal ingredient, but the inclusion of peppers is an authentic, local variation in many parts of Sicily especially from Catania. On my trips to Sicily I always sample as much caponata as possible and was very pleased to find that the best tasting versions of caponata all contained peppers – this I found in restaurants in Syracuse, Catania, Sciacca, Mazara del Vallo, Agrigento, Ragusa Ibla and Caltagirone.

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There are other Sicilian caponate (plural of caponata) made with other vegetables, for example, caponata di carciofi (artichokes) caponata di verdura verde (green leafy vegetables) and caponata di patate (see recipe below). The principal and most common flavourings that characterise a Sicilian caponata remain the same: the celery, capers, green olives and the sweet and sour caramelised sauce made with vinegar and sugar (agro dolce).

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Other traditional caponate recipes made with eggplants or eggplants and peppers use tomato paste rather than chopped tomatoes, some add garlic, others chocolate (or cocoa). Many recipes contain nuts – almonds or pine nuts or pistachio, used fresh in some recipes, in others they are toasted. Frequently herbs are added – sometimes basil, at other times oregano or mint. Certain recipes also include raisins or currants and some, fresh pears. Several include fish, singly or in combination of canned tuna, prawns, octopus, salted anchovies and bottarga.

To make caponata I always sauté (on high heat) my vegetables separately and then combine them at the end in the agro dolce (sweet and sour) sauce.

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CAPONATA DI PATATE
(Potato caponata)

This caponata can be eaten hot or at room temperature. It also keeps well refrigerated for several days.

The potatoes in this caponata are fried until lightly golden. The ingredients commonly used to make caponata – onions, celery, olives, capers, tomatoes and the vinegar and sugar for the agro dolce – are cooked together separately. The potatoes are then added to the other cooked component.

INGREDIENTS
potatoes, 1.5 kg
celery, 1 heart (the centre pale green stalks and some of the fine leaves)
onion, 2, large, chopped
capers, ½ cup, salted or in brine
green olives, ¾ cup , stoned, chopped
white vinegar, ¾  glass
sugar, 3 tablespoons
extra virgin olive oil, 1 cup (or more)
salt and freshly ground pepper
parsley, 1 cup, cut finely
tomato passata, 1 cup

PROCESSES
Peel and cube the potatoes and place onto a clean tea towel (or paper) to dry.
Fry the potatoes in hot extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with salt – do not crowd the potatoes and if needed use a wide frypan or cook in batches.
Turn occasionally until they are cooked and golden. Drain the potatoes and set aside. You can use this same oil to braise the vegetables (purists would use new oil).
Heat the oil and add the onions and the celery. Stir frequently and cook over a moderate heat until the onion is golden and the celery has softened. Add seasoning and parsley.
Add the tomatoes, capers and olives and toss the ingredients together for about 5 minutes.
Add sugar and vinegar and increase the heat to high to evaporate some of the vinegar.
Add the potatoes, cook for about 4-5 minutes to blend the flavours.
Serve at room temperature.

VARIATIONS
Add either chopped, toasted almonds or pistachio before serving (either on top or through the caponata) and scatter with fresh mint leaves.