Do you know the joys of Sicilian Eggplant Caponata? It’s absolutely amazing, and I’m going to show you how to make it. This is really an outstanding dish. If you’ve never tried it I highly, highly recommend you make this!
Sicily’s Amazing Caponata
There are a lot of amazing eggplant dishes from the Mediterranean region that incorporate bold flavors in an incredibly healthy olive oil-rich tomato sauce. There’s Italy’s famous Eggplant Parmesan, and Julia Child’s Eggplant Provincial (which I always think of as a French take on the Eggplant Parmesan). There’s Tunisia’s (and Israel’s, by way of reverse diaspora from Tunisia) amazing spicy tomato and egg dish, Shakshuka, which doesn’t have eggplant, but is similar in many other ways. There is Morocco’s baked eggplant and tomato salad, Zaalouk. There’s Spain’s famous Pisto Manchego, which is often described as a more saucy Spanish take on France’s Ratatouille, and is often served with a fried or baked egg, just like Shakshuka. And then there is Sicily’s intensely flavorful, wonderful, sweet and sour Caponata.
I wouldn’t think of ruffling any national or cultural feathers by presuming to pick a favorite. They’re all amazing, and I think it would be a highly worthy project to endeavor to make them all at some point. And to that end I’ll declare right here and now that I plan to take on this project [update: as you can see from the links above, I’m almost finished with the project!]. I’m already quite familiar with several of them. This week, however, I made Sicily’s famous Caponata for the first time.
Authentic Caponata You Say?
I took Deb Perelman’s characteristically sage advice from Smitten Kitchen, and didn’t trouble myself to try to find that one true and authentic version. From what I can gather there are as many versions of Caponata as there are Sicilian grandmothers. This appears to be another of those sorts of recipes that I love precisely because they’re not so over-determined and rigid. I appreciate the room they leave for a bit of license and creative interpretation.
There seems to be a foundational set of ingredients that make a Caponata a Caponata: eggplant, tomatoes, onion, celery, olives, capers, raisins, vinegar, and sugar. Surely even this list is contentious to somebody, but these seem to be commonalities to the myriad versions I found in my own highly anecdotal research. I can tell you already that I violated even this foundational list because I don’t do refined sugar if I can help it. I created the sweet note essential to the sweet and sour quality with a ruby port wine reduction. What makes me think I can take such liberties? Well, I guess because your Sicilian grandmother wasn’t here to stop me. Don’t have a Sicilian grandmother? All the better. You probably don’t have a dog in the fight.
Aside from the foundational ingredients, some people add carrot (turning the onion-celery mixture into a classic mirepoix) or roasted red pepper, or zucchini. My version includes the latter two items. I also used toasted slivered almonds instead of pine nuts, because I like almonds better. Oh, and I also added the very common but also very polarizing chocolate. I used 85% cocoa dark chocolate, which is actually loaded with fiber and anti-oxidants. Research also suggests that flavonoid-rich dark chocolate offers some of the cardiovascular health benefits that red wine provides. I will say this about the chocolate though: while it adds some complexity and subtle bitter-sweetness, it also sort of muddies the sharp acidity of the tomato flavor. So your call on that. I’m on the fence myself.
I can vouch for this though: this is an amazingly delicious dish, bursting with some pretty intense flavors. I really like the confluence of the acidic vinegar, the briny olives and capers, and the sweet raisins. There is a lot going on in this dish. And by the way, it’s best served at room temperature and it improves with age. I liked it much more on day two than on the day I made it. Rumor has it that this dish is often served as a side dish to fish in Sicily. I think it serves really well as an appetizer or tapas course as well. Don’t tell your Sicilian grandmother, but I had it for breakfast this morning with a fried egg on top. What can I say? It looks a lot like Skakshuka, or is that Pisto Manchego?
- 1 Pound of Eggplant, cut into 1 inch cubes
- ¼ Cup, plus 3 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 1 Medium Yellow Onion, diced
- 2 Celery Ribs, diced
- 1 Cup of Zucchini, sliced lengthwise and cut into half moon slices
- 1 Red Bell Pepper
- 3 Cloves Garlic, chopped
- 1 Cup Fresh Tomato, peeled and diced (or used canned)
- 2 Tablespoons Tomato Paste
- ½ Cup Ruby Port
- ½ Cup Red Wine Vinegar
- ¼ Cup Raisins
- ¼ Cup Slivered Almonds, toasted
- ¼ Cup Capers
- ¼ Cup Castelvetrano Olives, sliced off of the pits
- 2 Ounces of 85% Cocoa Dark Chocolate
- ¼ Cup Fresh Basil Chiffonade
- Preheat your oven to 425°F. Coat the eggplant slices in 3 tablespoons of olive oil and place on a baking sheet in a single layer. Roast the eggplant until tender and beginning to brown, turning once during baking (about 30 - 40 minutes). Set aside to cool (this step could be done a day ahead of time).
- Char the red bell pepper over a flame until blackened completely, and place into a paper bag to steam for 10 minutes. Remove the charred skin, and seed and coarsely chop the pepper into strips about one inch square.
- Heat remaining ¼ cup of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and celery and saute until vegetables begin to soften, about 10 minutes.
- Add the zucchini, roasted pepper, and garlic and cook and until zucchini softens and the vegetables begin to brown in places (about 10 more minutes).
- Add the tomato paste and continue to cook until tomato paste evaporates and begins to caramelize (about 5 minutes).
- Slide vegetables to the outer sides of the pan leaving an open space in the middle. Pour in the port and allow it to simmer until reduced to a syrupy consistency. Then stir it into the vegitables (this should take about 5 minutes).
- Add the vinegar, raisins, almonds, capers, and chocolate. Continue to cook until heated through.
- Stir in the roasted eggplant and the basil. Allow to cool.
- It's best served at room temperature. It's even better the next day.