Our recent trip to Sicily really has touched my heart. An island of five million people where Michele and I have deep family connections, even after three weeks there last month, there is still a huge amount that remains for us to explore. Before we left, I read an article that reframed Sicily as not situated in the south of Italy, nor at the farthest reaches of Europe, but Sicily as the heart of the Mediterranean. I found this to be so very true everywhere we looked.
In ancient ruins and temples still standing, to legends long ago of a solicitous and beheaded Arab prince turned palm planter (teste di moro), to the street life and food, Sicily is alive with emotion and passion. The tastes and smells in the markets and on restaurant tables match perfectly with the people, both generations-old and recent immigrants.
My understanding of the Islamic influence on Sicilian food was validated when we got back to LA. We invited our close Afghan friends to lunch so I could try out some of the dishes we had eaten. Without prompting, our friends said that the tastes reminded them of the Middle East. The agrodolce (sweet and sour) flavors, sesame seeds, eggplant and citrus all came to Sicily originally from the Arab regions of North Africa and the Middle East.
Of all the dishes we ate, the one that was literarily on every menu was caponata. Always with a base of eggplant and celery, tomatoes for sweetness, and capers or olives for sourness, caponata is usually served as an appetizer, at room temperature, along with some sesame seed bread.
The big caponata ah-ha moment for me was realizing that wherever we tried it in Sicily, the sweet and sour flavors were never aggressive or overwhelming. I’ve made and eaten caponata that had a lot vinegar and sugar. In Sicily, those ingredients are added only when needed to augment the natural flavors. Peeled whole tomatoes seem more common in this recipe than just tomato sauce. Finally, unsweetened baking cocoa was added for a hint of bitterness.
I have read that there are 37 certified varieties of caponata. The recipe below is closest to the one we ate in Palermo at Vossia. See the recipe headnotes for some additions. It is best made a day ahead, refrigerated and then allowed to come to room temperature before serving. I roast the eggplant vs. frying it, which is more traditional, to reduce the mess from frying, but with a similar flavor.
Enjoy making caponata before the end of the season, while you can still get good fresh eggplant and tomatoes.
Caponata, ubiquitous in Sicily, is a delightful appetizer enjoyed especially during the summer when the main ingredients are fresh from the market or your garden. The natural sweet and sour combination of tastes can be created with ingredients such as tomatoes, olives and capers. In this case, it’s important to get tomatoes you can taste ahead or a brand you know to be sweet. You can also use fresh tomatoes (blanch, peel and de-seed first).
Other suggested ingredients are golden raisins and pine nuts (both sweet) and red onions for some added zing. Cleaned and chopped red bell peppers are used in the version from Catania.
- 2 medium Italian eggplant (about 2 lbs total)
- 6 celery stalks, trimmed, cleaned and cut into 1-inch segments (use the more tender stalks near the center of the bunch)
- 1 yellow onion, diced small
- 10 or so green Sicilian olives, pitted and torn into pieces
- 2 tbsps capers packed in brine or oil, drained
- Half a 28-oz can of peeled Italian tomatoes, or 6-8 fresh plum tomatoes crushed by hand (see note 1 below)
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- Sugar and vinegar only as needed
- Slivered almonds, blistered cherry tomatoes (roasted or pan fried), and unsweetened baking cocoa for finishing touches
- Heat oven to 425℉. Trim off the ends of the eggplant then cut into 1-inch cubes.
- Toss eggplant in a bowl with olive oil and salt to well coat.
- Roast on a sheet pan covered with parchment paper for about 45 minutes, tossing once, until golden brown but not burnt.
- Meanwhile, heat a small pot of water to boil. Blanch the celery for 1 minute, drain and set aside.
- Place a medium sauce pan over medium heat and add 2 tbsps of extra virgin olive oil. Add the diced onions and a pinch of salt. Sauté until soft and lightly browned, about 5 mins.
- Add the tomatoes, and sauté until soft and cooked through. Add the capers, olives and blanched celery and cook until the celery is soft and has lost its bright green color.
- Add the roasted eggplant and stir into the sauce. The point here is to rehydrate the eggplant with the tomato flavor so if needed, add a little water loosen up the sauce. Slowed cook over low heat for about 10 minutes.
- Add this point, taste the caponata and add salt as desired. Also, taste for the sweet and sour tastes. They should be subtle, but if needed add a little sugar or vinegar to balance the flavors.
- Allow the caponata to cool and refrigerate it overnight. The next day, bring it to room temperature.
- Plate the caponata on a shared dish for a group. Top with slivered almonds, a blistered cherry tomato per person, and a dusting of cocoa.
(1) if using fresh plum tomatoes, you must cut the bottoms, blanch, remove the skins, slice and remove most of the seeds.