As you move to the deep south of Italy, the food changes becoming distinctly mediterranean as it combines sweet, savoury and nutty flavours. There is a natural contrast between the recipes traditionally coming from the wealthy palazzi and that for people living in the countryside and the along the coasts. And as often is the case the poor paisan food found ways to mimic the food of the nobility. Caponata, one of the quintessential contorni you can find in Sicily, was inspired by a fish dish cooked with a bitter sweet sauce, by replacing the expensive dolphinfish (not a dolphin!) with the readily available aubergine. The ancient name of dolphinfish was capone, hence the name of the dish. Traditionally it would be eaten as a main, with bread; but now it’s found in many different local variations across Sicily, as a side dish. Caponata is very flexible in terms of the flavours you can highlight along side its bitter-sweet taste, and some replace aubergine with artichokes, for example. We like the flavour and crunch from the celery (so we major on this), whist often it tends to be more hidden. As a dish it should be eaten warm.
1 celery stick (or more if you like)
1 red onion
50g capers (the salted ones)
25g pine nuts
100g pitted olives (green or black as you prefer)
1.5 teaspoons of sugar
75ml white wine vinegar
A few basil leaves
Which EVOO to use?
We are in Sicily, so naturally we use one of the oils from Frantoi Cutrera. In particular we like Gran Cru Nocellara Etnea for this dish, with its herbaceous and bitter undertones, that combine well with sweet and savoury flavours of Caponata.
Cut the aubergine in small cubes, place in a colander, sprinkle with fine salt and let it rest for at least 30 minutes. Rinse, dry and fry in abundant olive oil, on a low heat, stirring regularly for about 10 minutes. Make sure you don’t burn the aubergine and once they are ready transfer on kitchen paper to absorb the excess oil.
Thinly chop the celery and onions and cook in olive oil together with the tomatoes for about 15 minutes, making a pulpy stew. Make sure it doesn’t dry too much. Rinse the capers in fresh water and add together with the aubergines, sugar, vinegar, olives (whole or chopped), pine nuts and raisins, bring to the boil and then simmer for about 10 minutes. Add the fresh basil at the point of serving.