Caponata is something I’ve been seeing on so many blogs over the past year or so but I’ve never attempted to even looking too deeply into a recipe, let alone try making it. The reason for this is that I really do not like eggplant/ aubergine.
As a child it was one of the many vegetables that just could not bring myself to eat, though now I do like it cooked in a couple of ways but its one vegetable I would never consciously order if I ate out. My husband, on the other hand, quite likes eggplant and he’s quite an expert at cooking it up into a tasty stir-fry.
Our daughter seems to have taken after me for now, and will not touch an eggplant with the proverbial 10-foot pole! So why am I suddenly cooking a vegetable I don’t like too much?
The caponata was Alessio’s idea we were talking about how it would be fun to explore each others’ traditions by trying out dishes which are typical of our respective cuisines.
We started with Alessio and he suggested caponata, which is typical of Sicily, where he comes from. Put it down to Mario Puzo’s Godfather and movies of that genre, but for a long time (these are my school/ early college days I’m talking about) if someone played a word association game with me and said “Sicily”, I would have said “Mafia” which isn’t really fair to the country as a whole but there you have it!
Luckily that was way back, and now Sicily means much more including Italian style food which we enjoy. So back to the “Caponata”. I had a vague memory of reading somewhere that a caponata was a Sicilian eggplant salad. Since I knew next to nothing about it, I had to do a bit of reading to figure out exactly what it was.
Where better to start from than Alessio himself? His advice was, and I quote him on some of it, “For the caponata, the key ingredient is more the celery along with capers and olives. The sweet and sour flavour is at its base too. Considering that the dish is of arabic origins, including eggplants will keep it in its traditional cuisine comfort zone.”
Fresh celery is not always available here and it wasn’t surprising I couldn’t find it at the market the day I wanted it! I did have some dried celery which I used, but I suspect the frsh stuff would make all the difference. We find olives a bit of an acquired taste, and unfortunately haven’t acquired the taste for them so far!! I have also never seen a caper before!!!
I understand green peppercorns in brine are the closest substitute, but wouldn’t you know that my stock of this just got finished a couple of months back. So I shall be making my caponata without those key ingredients. Luckily, we do get eggplant/ aubergine all the year round, though different varieties in different seasons.
After much reading, I understand the caponata is considered to be Sicilian in origin, though many variations of it can be found right across Italy. Caponata is primarily made of fried/ sautéed (or baked) and chopped eggplant cooked with onion, tomato, garlic, vinegar, celery, sugar and pine nuts. Essentially a vegetarian dish, other ingredients are also sometimes added including seafood.
Caponata is most popularly served as antipasto or appetizers on crostini or twice baked rusks. It can also be served as a side or main dish and either warm or cold.
Much thought later and a bit restricted by the ingredients I had on hand, I found two recipes which looked like they might work for me. I think the best variety of eggpant to use would be the large purple kind which has very little seeds in it, the kind we use to make baingan bhartha in India.
It will be another month or two before this variety appears in the markets here, so I used the small variety of purple eggplant (they type we stuff with spices and cook) that’s available right now. I have seen many recipes mentioning slating the eggplants and pressing out the juice to remove the “bitterness”. I have never found any of the eggplant varieties in India to be bitter, so I didn’t do this.
I also noticed that the eggplant was treated differently in various recipes. Some pan-fried the eggplant, others used just as it was while some either roasted or baked it before making the caponata. Roasting eggplant is something we do in many Indian dishes and that lends a wonderfully smoky flavour but I thought I would try baking the eggplant here. It also meant I could cut down on the oil.
My less than authentic “Eggplant And Fig Caponata” which is an adaptation of Mario Batalli’s recipe) and a little lighter on the oil, is given below. The recipe I used involves making a tomato sauce first, which is then used to make the caponata. This may seem a more involved procedure, but I thought the caponata was worth it. There are easier and less time consuming recipes for caponata, which you might prefer.
I would take the amounts of most of the ingredients listed for this recipe as indicative rather than absolute. What I mean by that is that feel free to adjust the amounts to suit your taste, because there’s not much point in making something no one will eat!