Even if I love some of the island’s most emblematic dishes like pasta alla norma—and who doesn’t like cannoli?—Sicilian food has always been something of a mystery to me. Many of the dishes remind me of Angelina’s Campanian cooking—and Sicilians actually lay claim to melanzane alla parmigiana, which was one of her signature dishes—but there is something a bit ‘different’, if not downright foreign about some of the taste combinations, especially the tendency to combine sweet and sour, something Angelina would never do.
Getting to know Sicilian cooking has been on my ‘to do’ list for some time now. And one of the biggest regrets from my years in Italy was not getting down to Sicily to try out the cuisine first hand. Everyone I knew who went there on vacation raved about the food, but I never seemed to have the time or the inclination until it was too late. Well, not entirely too late. The plane trip would be a lot longer now, but I guess there is still time.
In any event, without any pretense of being an expert in Sicilian cooking, let me present my take on one of the most famous Sicilian dishes, la caponata. A kind of southern cousin to the ratatouille of Provence, this dish stars eggplant, with celery co-starring and with tomato and onions in supporting roles. And, as mentioned, it has a sweet-and-sour finishing touch that, if not overdone, perfectly balances out the flavors.
Ingredients (enough to serve 6 or more, as an antipasto or as part of a buffet)
1 kilo (2 lbs.) eggplant, cut into small cubes
1 bunch of celery, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 small can of tomatoes or 250g (1/2 lb) fresh, skinned and seeded
Salt and pepper
A handful of capers
A handful of pignoli nuts
250g (1/2 lb.) of green olives, pitted and halved
A sprig of fresh marjoram
Sugar and vinegar, to taste
The first step in this recipe, which is not absolutely necessary but a good idea, especially for larger, more mature eggplant, is to remove the excess liquid from the eggplant by sprinking the eggplant cubes with salt and placing them in a colander, with a small plate on top to exert some gentle pressure and one below to catch the eggplant liquid as it drains. Let the eggplant steep for an hour or more.
When you are ready to cook, gather up a handful of eggplant with a paper towel, give it a gentle squeeze to dry the cubes, and throw them into abundant olive oil—about 1 cm (1/2 in) deep—in a large pot. (Enameled cast iron pots work particularly well.) Work in batches to avoid crowding the eggplant, removing them with a skimmer when the eggplant cubes are just lightly browned to a basket or bowl lined with paper towels to soak up the excess oil.
When all your eggplant is done, there should be less oil in the pan, but still enough to cook with. Add the celery, sauté for a few minutes until the celery is tender but still has some ‘bite’ left in it. Season with salt and pepper as it cooks. Remove with a skimmer and set aside.
Now add the onion to the remaining oil in the pot and sauté it gently until it is quite soft. Add the tomato. Simmer the tomato until it has melted and reduced to a nice, sauce-like consistency.
Now add back your eggplant and celery, along with the capers, pignoli, olives and the marjoram. Allow everything to simmer together for about 5-10 minutes. A minute or two before it’s done, add the sugar and vinegar, mix well (but gently!) and let it finish simmering. Turn off the heat and let your caponata cool entirely before serving.
NOTES: There are two main points to watch out for when making this dish. First, depending on the quality of the eggplant, it may become very soft and, if it gets stirred too much, it will turn to mush. You can avoid this by browning the eggplant over high heat (and thus it will brown before getting too soft) and to limit the final simmering of the ingredients to just a few minutes. Of course, limit your stirring as well once all the ingredients have been mixed together.
The initial steeping in salt also helps. Besides removing the often bitter natural liquids in the eggplant, it produces a firmer texture. Recipes vary as to how long you should leave them to drain; some call for several hours, but with most eggplant an hour will do. In fact, even 30 minutes will help. The size and age of the eggplant will determine how long you will need. Smaller eggplant, by the way, tend to be firmer and are less needful of this initial step.
The other point is greasiness, since everything gets cooked in abundant oil. Now, of course, one person’s greasy is another person’s unctuousness, and this dish will never be fat-free. But if you want to lower the oilyness (and the calorie count) there are a few tricks. First, as mentioned, fry your eggplant at high heat, this will limit the amount of oil that the eggplant will absorb. Make sure to sop up the excess oil with paper towels. The same goes for the celery. And once the dish has cooled, if you find the resulting dish is a bit too rich for your taste, you can either skim the excess oil off with a spoon or even (as I did last night) strain the entire thing over a sieve for just a minute or two to allow the excess oil to drain off.
By the way, most recipes will tell you to fry the eggplant and celery separately, and then sauté the onion in yet another pot. But I find that my ‘one pot’ method works perfectly well and saves you some clean up afterwards.
Traditional recipes will tell you to de-string the celery and blanch it before sautéing, because in the old days celery was very strongly flavored and had tough filaments. Modern celery (at least here in the US) is raised to be almost ‘stringless’ and very mild in flavor. If in doubt, take a bite and see if these preliminaries are needed.
The capers should be the kind packed in salt, in which case rinse them and, if they are very salty, you may want to soak them for a few minutes. But the kind packed in brine will do fine in a pinch. Of course, if you can find imported Sicilian capers, in particular the famous capperi di Pantelleria, that would be perfect.
Since this is obviously a summer dish, fresh tomatoes rather than canned are traditional. But unless you are sure of the flavor and freshness of your tomatoes, to my mind canned is a better choice, even in hot weather.
How much sugar and vinegar, you ask? Well, I tend not to measure, but a couple of spoonful of sugar along with a splash of the vinegar (I prefer the white wine variety) should do you fine. Add more if you want a more pronounced sweet and sour flavor, but I like just a hint.
I’ve also seen recipes with considerably less celery and/or tomato. Other recipes add tomato paste for a ‘redder’ version. In short, you can play with the proportions and ingredients—but whatever you do, the eggplant should always be the star of the show!
Caponata is said to be of Spanish origin and, like many Italian dishes, has an interesting history, which you can read about here.