Caponata – a Sicilian sort of dry stew (perhaps a compote) – of sweet and sour vegetables is ubiquitous, and almost always unique. Each person, in each home, in each town, in each region, probably has their own way – and most times they make it, it will be different. This is perhaps because the word “caponata” is almost as generic as the word “soup” – it is a description as much of a way of cooking and seasoning as it is of a dish itself.
It is as commonplace a dish in Sicily as it is versatile: a standalone starter, part of an antipasto spread, as a filling for stuffed vegetables, fish or meat or sandwiches, as a vegan main, or as an accompaniment to fish (especially oily fish) or all sorts of meat (poultry, rabbit, lamb, etc).
Precisely how you cook caponata – how you chop the vegetables, the temperature and for how long you braise it – will have an even greater effect on the taste than the ingredients you choose to add. The method below gives, in my opinion, the best result – but is admittedly a very long and slow cook, requiring frequent attention. The variations – well, they are up to you. Last time I made it, I added the red pepper, olives and ginger; the time before had a hint of chocolate – go on whim, or on what needs using up in your kitchen.
As there is plenty of cooking time between adding ingredients, I’d recommend chopping as you go. Overall cooking time is 2½ hours with frequent stirring.
Serves 6 as a starter or side, 4 as a main
aubergines 2 large (600-700g), diced in 2cm pieces
extra virgin olive oil 120ml
onions 2 large, cut in 2cm slivers (halve them, cut in 4 lengthways, then shave thinly across)
celery 6 sticks, split lengthways then chopped crossways finely
garlic 8 cloves, thinly sliced
tomatoes 500g, cut in 2cm chunks
capers 150g (soaked, if packed in salt)
wine vinegar 70ml (red, if you have it)
sugar 70g (white or brown)
red peppers 1 or 2 large, added with the onions and celery
chilli flakes ½ tsp, added with the onions and celery
fresh ginger 2cm, chopped, added with the onions and celery
courgettes 2 medium (if in addition) or 6 medium (if substituting for aubergine), sliced half moon, added with the tomatoes
artichokes 2 medium (if in addition) or 8 medium (if substituting for aubergine), cleaned and thinly sliced, added with the tomatoes
raisins 100g, added with the tomatoes (halving the sugar later, to compensate)
green olives 200g stone-in, pitted and roughly chopped, added with the tomatoes
flaked almonds 50g, toasted, added with the tomatoes or as a garnish
pine nuts 50g, toasted, added with the tomatoes
dark (70%) chocolate 30g, added with the vinegar
herbs 1 or 2 tbsp of picked parsley leaves, basil leaves, mint leaves or fennel fronds, as a garnish
anchovy fillets 2 per person, cut in half lengthways, as a garnish
Keep the pan uncovered throughout – the long cooking time is to allow lots of water to evaporate.
First fry the aubergine: heat your widest pan over a high heat. Toss the aubergine in, half of the oil and a good pinch of salt. Add it to the pan and fry, stirring every couple of minutes, for a quarter of an hour – until the aubergine cubes are just cooked, and are browned on most sides. Set the aubergine aside, but reuse the warm pan, without washing it.
Now sweat the vegetables: put the onions in the warm pan with the remaining oil and a good pinch of salt. Fry them over a medium-high heat, stirring occasionally while you slice and add the celery and garlic. Continue to cook for 30 minutes, stirring from time to time until everything is completely tender.
Return the aubergines to the pan and add the tomatoes and capers. Cook for 15 minutes over the same medium-high heat, until almost all the liquid has evaporated. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 30 minutes more – until the vegetables are starting to look a bit concentrated and jammy.
Add the vinegar and sugar and braise gently for a good hour, stirring every 10-15 minutes. You are looking to concentrate the flavour as much as possible – taste regularly and use your judgment. Use this time to adjust the seasoning, adding salt and pepper bit by bit to perfection.
Caponata can be served anywhere from chilled to piping hot – I like it best at room temperature.