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.
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):