The dish that more people associate with Sicily than any other is probably caponata, an eggplant-based delight that has now spread throughout Italy and beyond. Unfortunately, much of the caponata one encounters outside of Sicily is a shadow of what it should be. When it's done right, it's a zesty summer dish that's ideal for perking up a sluggish appetite on a hot day.
Though it's traditionally a summer dish, it's so well-loved that it's now made year round, in an infinite variety of forms. Some versions are purely vegetarian, whereas some Palermo versions can also contain fish, as you will see in the variations below.
- 1 1/4 pounds celery stalks
- Olive oil, as needed
- 2/3 pound fresh tomatoes
- 2 1/4 pounds eggplants, diced
- 2/3 pound onions
- 6 ounces salted capers, rinsed well
- 5 tablespoons pine nuts
- 1/2 pound green olives packed in brine, drained and pitted
- 1/3 cup vinegar (wine vinegar or cider vinegar)
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1 cup tomato sauce (optional)
- Fresh basil leaves (optional, for garnish)
- Fine sea salt
Begin by stripping the filaments away from the celery stalks, then blanch them in lightly salted water for 5 minutes. Drain them, cut them into bite-size pieces, saute them in a little oil, and set them aside.
Cut a small "X" shape in the bottom of each tomato, then drop them into boiling water for about 30 seconds to blanch them and make the peels easy to remove. Peel them and chop them.
Finely slice the onions and saute them in olive oil; once they have turned translucent, about 5 minutes, add the capers, pine nuts, olives, and tomatoes.
Continue cooking, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the tomatoes are done, about 15 minutes, and then remove from heat.
While the tomatoes are cooking, heat a skillet with some oil and fry the diced eggplant, in several batches. When the last batch is done, return the tomatoes to heat and stir in the eggplant, together with the celery. Add the tomato sauce also at this point (if using). Cook for several minutes over low heat, stirring gently, then stir in the vinegar and the sugar; when the vinegar has almost completely evaporated, remove the pot from heat and let it cool.
Serve the caponata at room temperature, with a garnish of fresh basil, if using. There will be a lot, but don't worry, because it keeps for several days in the fridge, and I find that it improves with time.
Palermo-Style Caponata with Fish (Capunata Palermitana chi Purpiceddi)
The ingredients listed above, plus:
- 1 pound baby octopus (or squid), cleaned
- 1 cup flour
- 2 artichokes, sliced into eighths and blanched
The method follows that given above, with the following variations: Flour the celery sticks, artichokes, olives and capers, and fry them. If the octopus are very small fry them whole, otherwise chop them before frying them. Drain all the fried ingredients well on absorbent paper, add them to the tomato mixture, and finish cooking as above.
The Baroness of Carni's Caponata (Capunata Barunissa di Carni)
The noble lady must have been given to flights of fancy. To serve 8 you'll need:
All the ingredients of the preceding two versions except the octopus, and:
- 3/4 pound swordfish fillets, thinly sliced, floured and fried.
- 1/2 pound diced lobster tail, barely blanched
- 1/2 pound of asparagus tips (wild asparagus will be best), steamed
- 1/4 pound shrimp, boiled until just done and shelled
- 2 ounces bottarga (tuna roe, available from a delicatessen), grated or crumbled
- Minced parsley
Prepare the caponata following the procedure outlined above; gently combining the swordfish filets, asparagus tips, and diced lobster tail with everything else and lay the caponata out in an elegant serving dish. Garnish it with the shrimp, bottarga and minced parsley, and serve, with a dry white wine.