Let’s make the most of simple, healthy food. Let’s not panic about not having fully stocked pantries.
There are always chickpeas and other pulses in my pantry and freezer. I soak pulses overnight, change the water and then cook them on low heat. Once cooked, I transfer the surplus into glass jars and store them in my freezer. Easy, nutritious and on hand.
Here are two things that I cooked recently using chickpeas.
Pasta with cauliflower, short pasta and chick peas:
The other, chickpeas, saffron, mushrooms and eggplants:
I really enjoy making the most of the ingredients I have on hand. This is one of the reasons why I like camping or preparing a meal in Airbnbs in fabulous parts of the world….You do not have everything…cannot pop into a particular store to buy things so you have to be creative and use what you have.
The pasta dish was very simple. In the photo you see chickpeas, passata, herbs and chillies. The herb I used is nepitella that grows on my balcony and is ultra plentiful at the moment. You may have oregano, basil, thyme, marjoram or just plain parsley on hand.
The vegetable is common, white cauliflower…easily available, keeps well in the fridge for a long time. I like to use spring onions, rather than onions, but the choice is yours. There is garlic and stock. Stock is always in my freezer. Like I cook and store pulses, there are jars of broth or stock on hand.
The method is nothing novel. Most of my cooking begins with extra virgin olive oil, garlic, onion (if using both), sautéed. Add main ingredients. In this case cauliflower, sauté again, add stock, herbs, seasoning and passata (not much, just to colour). Cover and cook. Very Italian.
I cooked the short pasta separately, but I could have added more stock and cooked the pasta in the cauliflower concoction. You can tell by the photos that I intended this dish to be a wet pasta dish.
Now for the other. I cannot call it anything because I had no background for this recipe. Once again it was making use of what I had in my fridge. It tasted great and I may not make it again, but if I do it could be different. It all depends what you have on hand.
A spring onion, sautéed. Add mushrooms, I left them whole. Sautéed once again. Add chickpeas, eggplant (I cut it lengthwise) saffron, herbs, seasoning and the chickpea broth. The chickpeas are stored in their cooking liquid, and this is the broth. I used marjoram as the herb this time (the plant on my balcony needed trimming) and decorated the dish with fresh mint.
Is it regional Italian?
Certainly the basic cooking methods and ingredients could be Italian or Mediterranean at least. Like all of us, as a cook we rely on our experiences and knowledge of particular cuisines. Is it something that my mother would have made? Maybe the cauliflower pasta has common roots.
Being creative in my kitchen gives me much pleasure.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 :
My daughter found this clipping. It was printed in the Herald Sun (Melbourne) on Friday 5th August 2011. The accompanying text is:
Samantha’s sister spotted this interesting pasta on a menu in a London Restaurant.
I hope No.10 is actually ‘aubergines’ and not what it says ( grilled aboriginies).
I wonder how many noticed the unfortunate faux pas. So often readers bring (during the reading process) what they expect to find in the text – by that I mean that as readers, we do not necessarily read every word carefully and because the word ‘aborigines’ looks a little like ‘aubergines’ (eggplants), many would read it as such.
Call a particular dish alla Siciliana and immediately it may sound special to someone who may not know any better. I would not order it on principle – anything called alla Siciliana smells fake.
A recipe cooked alla siciliana could contain almost any ingredient from anywhere in the south of Italy, for example tomatoes, olives, wild fennel, anchovies, pine nuts, raisins. This restaurant has chosen a rich tomato sauce, mozzarella, grilled aubergines, a dash of garlic and parmesan cheese. I am not sure about the combination but here is a recipe for Fusilli alla Siciliana that is more to my taste.
It is a summer dish; tomatoes, peppers eggplants, basil – I do know that all of this produce seem to be available at the Queen Victoria Market even if it is out of season in Melbourne.
Fusilli: This strip of pasta is fashioned like a spiral and shaped like a big screw or a spring. The same shapes may be labelled spirali if made by a different manufacturer. To be more Sicilian you could use cavatelli or caserecci.
pitted black olives, ½ cup
anchovies fillets , 4-5, chopped finely
pasta, 400 g (100g per person)
extra virgin olive oil, ¾ cup
garlic cloves, 3 chopped finely
chilli flakes, pinch or fresh chilli
salted capers, ½ cup – pre soaked
red tomatoes, 1 kg or good quality tinned
fresh basil leaves, 5-10
chopped parsley, 1 tablespoon salt to taste
Peel the eggplant and cut into cubes, soak in some salt water till ready to use. Put a weight on the cubes to keep them submerged. Drain and towel dry before cooking.
Roast/char peppers and remove the skins. Separate them into strips.
Make a tomato salsa: soften the garlic in some oil, add the tomatoes, a little salt and cook till reduced.
Heat more oil in a separate frypan and sauté the eggplants. Add anchovies, chilli, capers and parsley. Mix the ingredients together and cook for about 10 minutes. Add peppers and basil and heat through.
Use the sauce to dress the pasta and present it with grated pecorino cheese or ricotta salata.
These scacce were made by one of my cousins, Franca. She lives in Ragusa and these focaccia-like stuffed breads are typical of that region of Sicily (south east and the chief cities are Ragusa, Modica, Noto).
There are many focaccia-like stuffed breads made all over Sicily. They have different names, they may be slightly different in shape and have some variations in the filling. In my previous posts I have written about sfincione di Palermo and impanata (in categories Snacks and Meat), but there are other regional specialties, for example the ‘nfigghiulata, fuazza, pastizzu, ravazzata and scacciata.
Scacce are probably classed as finger food and are usually made in large numbers. In the houses of my Ragusa relatives they are made for Christmas, Easter, birthdays, baptisms (few of those lately) and in fact, on any celebratory occasion.. Although the other cousins and their daughters and my aged aunt can all make scacce well, it is always Franca’s duty; she is deemed the campione (champion) maker.
There are several different fillings for scacce in their household. The ones in the photo are made with slices of fried eggplants, tomato salsa, toasted breadcrumbs, basil, pepper, caciocavallo cheese (use provola/ mozzarella- type cheese) and of course, extra virgin olive oil.
But if she is making one type of filling, she is likely to make other scacce with different fillings and they vary with seasonal ingredients.
Typical fillings are:
• tomato salsa (300g ripe tomatoes, garlic, oil, salt and pepper and reduced, basil, caciocavallo cheese (100g cut into very thin slices),
• caciocavallo cheese , parsley, seasoning and oil,
• young spinach leaves, sprinkled with salt and cut finely, dried grapes (currants), seasoning and a little salsa,
• fresh onion, cut finely, sprinkled with salt and left in a colander for about 30 mins, then squeezed, the onion is mixed with fresh drained ricotta,
• fresh drained ricotta and fresh pork sausage(casing removed) rubbed between the fingers, wild fennel,
• purple or green cauliflower (partly cooked in boiling water), dressed with extra virgin olive oil, garlic, salt, chili, caciocavallo cheese, (anchovies are optional).
When I make a scaccia I put the filling on top of the dough in one layer, then roll it up like a strudel, but this is for the novices, the Ragusani do it differently. The dough is folded over, filled again, then folded again. I have difficulties explaining it but I will do my best.
The scaccia is cut into slices once it is baked.
INGREDIENTS and PROCEDURES
The dough is the same as for making pizza: good quality white flour, yeast (fresh or dry), salt, warm water, and some white wine (this ingredient is not usually added to a pizza and seems typical of the region). Try: 500g/ ¾ cup of liquid/25g yeast.
Combine all ingredients until you have soft dough. Stretch and place fingers through dough and add about ¾ cup of extra virgin olive oil.
Kneed well. Leave it covered for about one hour to rise.
When spreading the filling over the dough, spread the filling thinly.
Roll out the dough into a thin square sheet.
Place ½ of the filling of choice on top of the dough, but leave a border of about 2cm. on the four sides.
Fold two of the opposite borders into the centre. Place the rest of the filling on top of the two folded flaps.
Fold the other two opposite ends into the centre and seal the pastry with beaten egg.( make sure it is well stuck).
Bake the scaccia in a 200 C oven for about 30 minutes.
Remove the scaccia from the oven, let it rest, covered with a tea towel, for about 20 minutes.
Cut the scaccia into slices.
In the photo you will notice bottles of Nero D’Avola (typical Sicilian red wine) and some white mirtilli (these berries are the same species as blueberries, bilberries and cranberries). These are very much appreciated in Sicily.