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.
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.
A common recipe throughout Italy is braised calamari (usually called calamari in tegame – a tegame is a shallow sauté pan with a lid). The squid are sautéed and then simmered with some liquid – usually wine and/or tomatoes. In Italy small sized squid or cuttlefish is the norm: Australian regulations ensure that our squid grow to a more mature size (a good thing), but generally the larger they are, the tougher they can be.
For a main course for six people you will need 3 kg of calamari– because they shrink. Potatoes and peas are often included in this dish, but this time I added summer eggplants.
small squid, 3 kg
white wine,1 cup
flat leaf parsley, chopped, 1 cup
extra virgin olive oil, ½ cup
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
onions, 2 chopped
eggplants, 2 medium sized, peeled and cut into small cubes
tomato salsa, 1 cup
TOMATO SALSA: fresh, peeled, ripe, chopped tomatoes or a can (with the liquid), a little extra virgin olive oil, garlic cloves left whole, fresh basil or oregano and a little seasoning. Place all of the ingredients into a pan together and evaporate until thickened.
Prepare the squid by removing the head with a sharp knife. Open the body and remove the internal organs. Retain the ink sacs and freeze them if you wish to use them at another time for pasta with black ink sauce.
Wipe clean or wash the squid and cut into strips.
Heat the oil in a frying pan and sauté the peeled chopped onions lightly.
Add the squid; stir-fry it for about 5 minutes.
Pour in the white wine, salsa and eggplants, season with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Cover and cook gently for 15-20 minutes until the eggplants are cooked.
Those of you who live in the UK may have already watched Sicily Unpacked with London based historian Andrew Graham-Dixon and chef Giorgio Locatelli. We have viewed two episodes in Australia and have one to go. I always find great pleasure in seeing Sicily promoted. In these two episodes we have seen some beautiful scenes mainly of Palermo, Noto and Modica and I have included a few of the photos I have to remind you of how beautiful Sicily is.
I have Giorgio Locatelli’s Made In Italy and have enjoyed it. Giorgio’s book on Sicily was released at the same time as mine (Sicilian Seafood Cooking). I have yet to buy his book on Sicily, but I will, as it is always good to compare one’s recipes with someone else’s.
In the two episodes that I have watched Giorgio has cooked three recipes, but although you saw preparing these he did not provide them (a good strategy to motivate you to buy the book).
When I cook I always like to look at more than one recipe of the one dish and then decide how I am going to cook mine. You may wish to do the same.
The three recipes that Giorgio cooked are on my blog and from what I could see they were quite different to mine. To view these recipes on my blog click on the links below. Those of you who have a copy of my book Sicilian Seafood Cooking will find two of these recipes written in greater detail.
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….
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.
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
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- dolcesauce (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.
I have some good news.
A few months ago I submitted three family recipes to the SBS Food website as part of a promotion for the upcoming SBS TV series MY FAMILY FEAST, which begins on Thursday, 27 August at 7:30pm on SBS ONE.
MY FAMILY FEAST is a weekly half hour television show that will take us into the lives and cooking traditions of Australian immigrants and their families, as seen through the eyes of award winning chef Sean Connolly.
The three recipes (as called on my web) are:
• SARDE A BECCAFICO (Sardines stuffed with currants, pine nuts, sugar and nutmeg)
• PASTA CON LE SARDE (Pasta with sardines, from Palermo, made with fennel, pine nuts and currants)
• EGGPLANT or ZUCCHINI PARMIGIANA (Milinciani or cucuzzeddi a parmiciana – parmigiana di melenzane or di zucchine).
All three recipes were selected and published on the SBS website. On their website they are called:
• Sardines a beccafico, stuffed with currants and pine nuts
• Eggplant or zucchini Parmigiana
• Pasta with sardines, fennel, pine nuts and currants
I have now been informed (by Shelley Hepworth Editor, SBS Food)
that one of my recipes Sardines a beccafico, stuffed with currants and pine nuts has been cooked by Sean Connolly and will be published as a video on the MY FAMILY FEAST website.
The SBS website is:
You can view the video on the SBS Food website here:
I have reproduced a photo of Sean Connolly from the web, therefore I will acknowledge it.
Executive Chef and restaurateur Sean Connolly poses at the official launch party for Sean’s Kitchen at Star City on September 10, 2008 in Sydney, Australia.
(September 10, 2008 – Photo by Gaye Gerard/Getty Images AsiaPac)
15th October 2009
My Family Feast
I have been overseas and have only had the opportunity to view three episodes of this adventurous, food series. I was very impressed by Sean’s obvious enjoyment and the respect he demonstrated to the people and the ingredients. I particularly enjoyed the informality of the interaction between the cooks and Sean. Congratulations, and I am sorry that I have not viewed them all.
It may be apparent that I am very passionate about authentic recipes, especially the ones which claim to be Italian or Sicilian.
One of the recipes is parmigiana. I have read about it in a number of sources, I have tasted it in a number of places in restaurants in Australia and have also seen it cooked on television. I have been determined to get the real story across, so much so, that I have sent this information and the recipe to two sources and I hope that they publish it. SBS have now published it on their website.
I have written this not necessarily because I am a purist, but because I always like to be aware of the origins of traditional recipes and their names. I believe that like language, recipes evolve and if someone adds a personal touch, well and good, but I do like to acknowledge the origins of the authentic recipe – once one knows the basics, there is always room for creativity.
This is how my family has always cooked parmigiana. It is how it was cooked by my mother, her mother and (more than likely) her mother before her. It represents generations of preparing and eating parmigiana in Sicilian kitchens. And those of you who are Italian, this is how the ‘existing firsts’ made it.
A parmigiana made with eggplants or with zucchini is a very common contorno (vegetable accompaniment) all over Sicily. (See variation below if using zucchini). It was once a seasonal dish of summer and autumn, but now in Sicily eggplants are grown successfully in the numerous serre (greenhouse farms) which have sprouted in most parts of the island and allow the production of summer vegetables well before and after their normal season.
Contrary to expectations it does not contain parmigiano (Parmesan cheese) nor does it originate in Parma, the home of parmigiano and the prosciutto di Parma. Pamigiana isan old Sicilian dish, most likely an adaptation and development from the fried eggplant dishes introduced by the settlers from the Middle East (the Persians). One common dish still prepared today in Iran is Kashk-e Baadenjaan. It consists of layers of fried eggplants (baadenjaan in Iranian), covered with a thick whey (kashk – a Iranian product similar to yogurt) and then sprinkled it with mint.
The layers of eggplants resemble the horizontal slats of outside, louvered shutters for blocking sunlight while allowing ventilation. These are called parmiciane (in old Sicilianand persiane in Italian). In English they are commonly called Persian blinds or persiennes (from the French. Consequently the name milinciani a parmiciana, later distorted in translation from the Sicilian into Italian to parmigiana. The Italian word for eggplant is melanzana (Solanum melongena) and once called mad apple or apple of madness by some Europeans, either because it was heard as mala insana or because the eggplant belongs to the nightshade family and therefore associated with toxins, madness and death.
To make parmigiana, the eggplants or zucchini are fried before they are placed in layers (2-3 in a baking dish) each covered with a little tomato salsa, a sprinkling of grated pecorino cheese and basil and then baked.
In some parts of Sicily, instead of grated pecorino, fresh tuma or primo sale can be used. Both are very fresh pecorino cheeses in different stages of production. The primo sale is the second stage of maturation when the first sprinkling of salt is added to the outside of the cheese. These are available from Italian fresh cheese manufactures, but pecorino fresco (fresh pecorino) can be a good substitute.
I ate a version of parmigiana in Agrigento and it had hard- boiled eggs in it. There are regional variations for making parmigiana in Sicily.
Traditionally the eggplants are fried in plenty of oil, but a non-stick fry pan using a little oil can also achieve the wanted results.
Salting slices of eggplants to remove bitter juices was once thought necessary for all eggplants, but a fresh, in season eggplant is very unlikely to be bitter when cooked.
Soaking slices of eggplants in salted water while you work, however, will prevent the eggplant from discolouring and minimize the absorption of oil.
An Italian signora (one of the many women stallholders I have befriended in the Queen Victoria Market) told me how to tell if the eggplants are going to be good ones. She said that as well as looking at the colour (shiny and deep purple) I needed to look at the eggplant’s bellybutton (the mark at the base and where the blossom once was). If the eggplant is fresh, the bellybutton should be either a narrow line or a line stretched into an oval shape but never round (evidence of seeds). I must look odd when I shop for eggplants, turning them upside down to check their belly buttons! I have now shared this tip with all my friends (many who live in Adelaide) and wonder how long it will be before stallholders are wondering what this new craze is all about!
It is the wilted, softer eggplants, or the ones that are not quite dark purple and are tinged with green (a result of not enough sun or being grown out of season) that are likely to be bitter. When cut, it is probable that these eggplants are likely to have many dark bitter seeds.
Eggplants discolour quickly so they need to be cooked soon after being cut and this is why soaking them in salt water may not be a bad idea when you are cooking large amounts.
Eggplants are cooked in many ways by Sicilians and similar to meat (they are fried, baked, grilled, stuffed, boiled, sautéed and roasted). Their versatility is a demonstration of the cucina povera (the cuisine of the poor, making the most of simple common ingredients), central to Sicilian life.
eggplants, 2 large peeled and sliced thinly, lengthways
extra virgin olive oil, 1 cup or more (see above)
tomatoes, 1k, ripe, peeled, seeded and diced (or use canned)
onion, 2 sliced
garlic 1 clove
basil leaves, fresh about 1 cup, small, tender and whole
salt and freshly ground black pepper
grated pecorino cheese, ¾ cup
Slice the eggplants (soak in slated water, optional).
Pat dry gently and fry the slices of eggplants in several batches until golden brown.
Place fried eggplants on paper towels to drain the oil.
Make the salsa: heat a little of the olive oil over a medium flame and sauté the garlic. When it is golden brown remove it and discard. Add the chopped tomato, salt and pepper and some basil leaves and cook till thick.
Heat the oven to 200C
Oil an ovenproof dish and cover the bottom with a thin layer of tomato sauce, sprinkle with the cheese and a few basil leaves. Repeat until all the ingredients are used up and you have 2-3 layers, leaving a little cheese for the topping.
Bake for about 20 minutes.
Present at room temperature garnished with basil leaves.
There are local variations. Many add slices of hard-boiled eggs between the layers.
Parmigiana di Zucchine
Sprinkle thin slices of zucchini with a little salt. Leave them for about 20-30mins – this will help to draw out some of the liquid.
Fry the zucchini in batches and proceed as above.
My relatives in Sicily prefer to use the violet coloured eggplants they call violette in preference to the dark skinned variety they call Tunisian (they believe that they are originally from Tunisia). The violette are seedless and sweet. There is a heirloom variety (seed) available in Australia called listada di gadia – it is purple striped and almost seedless.