High in taste and low in effort, this Sicilian caponata is a rich and piquant eggplant stew that's full of nourishing vegetables and fragrant herbs. Serve it on its own with rustic bread, or as part of a larger meal, and you won't go far wrong!
“Would you write me a recipe for Sicilian caponata?” asked my BFF, as we sat drinking Bullfrog cocktails in the Che Guevara bar in Cluj. “Of course,” I replied.
And promptly forgot. I am such a rubbish friend at times. Or maybe it’s just that those Bullfrogs were powerful mean drinks. Fortunately, I came across a note on my iPad that I’d written in the bar to remind myself; “Make caponata for Sue, idiota!” So here you are, my darling friend - enjoy!
Vegan food in Italy
Many people seem to be under the misapprehension that Italy doesn’t do ‘naturally’ vegan food but really, nothing could be further from the truth. Due to its favourable climate, Southern Italy grows most of the produce for the entire country.
It stands to reason, therefore, that veggie dishes abound, especially ones which use up end-of-season fruits and vegetables. No one is going to let a few under-sized aubergines or carrots, or barely-ripe tomatoes go to waste! Vegetable stews are big in Southern Italy; Sicily, for example, has caponata, while in Pozzuoli in Campania - where I lived a few years ago - we had cianfotta (pronounced chi’an-fo-tuh). Both are very similar, and consist of a mélange of vegetables, herbs, and spices, slow-cooked in order to extract max flavour with the minimum of effort.
Caponata is yet another a wonderful example of cucina povera - simple, frugal cooking... the cornerstone of almost everything I make. Like other Italian dishes, its success relies not on complicated methods and hours spent slaving over a hot stove but rather on good-quality ingredients and a bit of know-how. As such, caponata does not really have one definitive recipe, instead, it’s a case of using what you have, and every household has its own way of making this wonderful dish. The very essence of cucina povera. And of the late, great Carluccio’s mantra, “MOFMOF” - minimum of fuss, maximum of flavour!
Of course, there are a few ‘rules’ you should follow when making caponata. It should have aubergine (eggplant), onion, garlic, tomatoes, and chilli. And as with Thai cooking, there should be a flavour cycle. In this case; sweet, sour, salty, hot. Traditionally, the eggplant is fried before stewing; however, because I prefer to use less oil, I steam it. It takes around 5-7 minutes (depending on the size of the chunks you cut your eggplant into), and loses none of its flavour. By all means fry the eggplant if you wish but I can honestly say that having made caponata scores of times, both by frying and by steaming, it makes absolutely no difference to taste or texture.
Do eggplants need to be salted?
I'm aware that there are people who claim you must always salt eggplants before cooking but I'm not one of them. As I've spoken about before, in Europe we do not have bitter eggplants, so there's no need to salt, no matter their size. Similarly, Asian eggplants shouldn't ever need to be salted. However, if you live in a place where large eggplants can be bitter, then by all means, salt them for 30 minutes while you make the soffritto. Or just use small ones!
Because of Sicily’s Maghreb Berber heritage, caponata shares many similar qualities to the tagines of Morocco... or Berber mamita.** Lots of veggies, plus olives, capers, dried fruit (in this case, sultanas), almonds, and herbs all find their way into the pot.
**Mamita, by the way, is basically the same word as the French marmite (mar-meet) - a type of stew pot, and by extension, the stew within. Brits will be very familiar with Marmite jars, which are shaped to resemble the marmite.
Some folk add courgettes (zucchine) and Romano peppers to caponata - I do if I have them - and some don’t. It’s up to you. My usual list of ingredients goes like this;
- onion, garlic, celery, & carrot, herbs, spices, & olive oil
- eggplant (aubergine / melanzana), sweet pepper, zucchini (courgette), fresh tomatoes, passata, & tomato purée (tomato paste)
- olives, sultanas, capers, & almonds
- sugar & vinegar
I really don’t advise using green peppers though. In addition to being the food of Satan, they will impart a bitter taste, which is not what you want in your caponata. The flavours should be balanced and harmonious, and work together. Like Tony Stark, green peppers just don’t play well with others!
Caponata cannot be rushed!
While caponata is a really easy dish to make, you do nevertheless need to have patience (Roma non fu fatta in un giorno!) - caponata cannot be rushed. If you try to cut corners, you'll end up with something thin and insipid.
Like good wine and the best relationships, this caponata needs time to mature. However, most of it is hands-off time, which leaves you free to watch an episode of Two Greedy Italians, sing an aria or three, or curl up with a good book and a glass of Barolo!
Don't believe any blogger who tells you that you can make proper caponata in half an hour. They are more concerned with page views than giving you accurate information and a recipe that actually works!
Also, although it can be eaten on the same day, caponata is so much better when left for a day for the flavours to really develop.
- I use Korean chilli flakes (gochugaru) as they are nice and mild; however, do feel free to use your own favourite. The aim to have a subtle chilli kick, not to blow your face off!
- To steam the eggplant, use a large saucepan with a steamer insert inside, or a bamboo steamer on top. If you have an electric steamer, follow the manufacturer's instructions.
- If you don't cover the pan, the caponata will dry out.
- Nutritional information does not include optional parmesan (vegan or dairy).
- Serving sizes are based on eating caponata as a main course. As a side, the recipe should be more than enough for eight servings.
- This can be kept for up to a week in the fridge.
- Don't freeze caponata! Thawed and reheated aubergines & courgettes are gross. Just. Don't. Do. It.
What to serve with caponata
Traditionally served at room temperature with some fresh pane casareccio (a type of home-made sourdough bread), this caponata is a delicious meal in its own right. You could also have it with or ciabatta or focaccia.
It’s also great as a starter, or even piled onto crostini or small polenta rounds as an appetiser. Caponata is fab on toast, too! Pancia mia fatti capanna - buon appetito!
Do check out these other Italian yums!
How To Make Sicilian Caponata
- 1 large eggplant (aubergine) weighing around 500g (c.1 lb), cut into 5cm (2") cubes
- 6 tbsp good olive oil divided
- 1 large onion finely sliced
- 8 fat cloves garlic smashed
- 1 medium stick celery diced
- 1 medium carrot diced
- 1 large bay leaf
- 2 sprigs thyme or ½ tsp dried
- 1 large sprig rosemary or ½ tsp dried
- 1 tsp fresh oregano or ½ tsp dried
- 2 tsp Chilli flakes
- ¼ tsp sea salt divided
- 1 large Romano or sweet red pepper de-seeded and sliced into bite-sized pieces
- 1 medium courgette cut into 2.5cm (1") cubes
- 3 large plum tomatoes roughly chopped
- 150 g passata
- 1 tbsp tomato purée tomato paste
- 25 pitted green olives
- 50 g sultanas
- 3 tbsp non pareil capers drained
- 1 large red chilli pepper slit (seeds and pith intact)
- 120 ml water
- 1 tbsp palm sugar
- 3 tbsp white wine vinegar
- 50 g flaked almonds toasted (plus a few to garnish)
- small handful fresh basil torn (plus a few leaves to garnish)
- ¼ tsp ground black pepper
- Parmigiano (Parmesan), to serve
Prep the eggplant
- If you're going to salt your eggplant, do it now; put the cubes into a colander, sprinkle with salt, and weigh them down by using a plate with a heavy saucepan on top. Either place the colander in the sink or in a shallow dish, and leave for 30 mins for the eggplant to 'sweat'. After half an hour, rinse well under running cold water.
Make the soffritto
- While the eggplant is sweating, in a large saucepan, fry the onion in 2 tbsp oil over a medium heat until it begins to turn translucent (around 5-7 mins).
- Add the garlic, and continue to fry for another couple of minutes, until the raw smell has gone.
- Stir in the celery, carrot, bay leaf, thyme, rosemary, oregano, chilli flakes, and a pinch of sea salt, reduce the heat, and gently fry for about 20 minutes - stirring occasionally - until the onion becomes golden brown, and the other veggies have softened.
Steam the eggplant
- While the soffritto is cooking, place a steamer pan on the stove to boil.
- Once the water is boiling, add the eggplant cubes, replace the lid, and steam for 5-7 minutes, until the eggplant is tender. As soon as the eggplant is ready, remove from the pan to prevent it going mushy.
Make the caponata
- Add the eggplant, Romano pepper, courgette, tomatoes, passata, tomato purée, olives, sultanas, capers, chilli pepper, water, and sugar to the soffritto. Give everything a good stir, and bring to a boil.
- Once the caponata is boiling, reduce the heat, cover with a well-fitting lid, and simmer for an hour, stirring occasionally.
- Turn off the heat, and stir in the rest of the oil, 2 tbsp wine vinegar. Taste - there should be a balance of sweet and sour. If it needs more sour, add the rest of the vinegar.
- Stir in the almonds and basil, taste, and season with salt and black pepper.
- Set aside to cool to room temperature before serving (although it's actually best served the next day).
- Store in an airtight container in the 'fridge for up to a week. Before serving, heat gently to room temperature.
- 1 cup = US cup = 240 ml
- 1 tbsp = US/UK = 15 ml
- 1 fl oz = US = 30 ml