This comes fully loaded with Sicilian flavors. In its glossy, smoothly rich sauce, caponata is savory, sharp, sweet, salty, and sour. Serrano peppers light its fire, and a golden focaccia loaf turns it into an elegantly simple lunch or supper.
Bewitching. In that lovely word’s most entrancing sense, that’s caponata. There’s something magical here, a sort of culinary wizardry that transforms simple ingredients into a dish that brightly spotlights each of the five elements of taste.
Caponata unites that range of distinctive contrasts so astonishingly well that it’s ranked among the classics of traditional Italian cuisine. For a dish that’s been adored for so long and so widely praised, it’s surprisingly easy to make. A little frying of a few very easily prepped ingredients is followed by low-and-slow simmering. And that’s it. The enchanted dish is done. Let your caponata sit for an hour or two – so the flavors come into full bloom – and it’s ready to serve.
Some Sicilian sorcery – from simplicity comes complexity
Eggplant, zucchini, celery, onions, and tomatoes. That covers caponata’s main ingredients. To complete the list, add serrano peppers, capers, olives, raisins, sugar, tomato purée, and vinegar. That’s only a dozen items to create one of the world’s finest vegetarian dishes.
For a dedicated carnivore like me, the absence of meat heightens my surprise at how good this is. So much so that I wondered what I’d make of it blindfolded. Well, I’d be trying to work out what meat had been used. That’s because caponata is so delectably savory and so packed with the umami hit of, say, the charring on a fine, succulently rare steak.
A lot of that no-meat surprise is down to the essential, primary ingredient: eggplant. I’ve seen eggplant referred to as ‘vegetarian meat’ and that might be a reason why caponata revolves around it. Once golden-fried in biggish chunks, it’s slowly simmered with everything else until its increasingly creamy texture takes on caponata’s hallmark blending of bitter-sweet flavors.
Fusing cultural flavors
Known as agrodolce in Italian, this fusion of starkly contrasting flavors is a centuries-old feature of Sicilian cooking. It’s all about creating balances and nuances that are drawn from a dizzying wealth of colonizing culinary influences.
As he scoots around Sicily, Matthew Fort brings all that beguiling history to vivid, recipe-filled life in his 2008 book Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons: Travels in Sicily on a Vespa. It’s a history that’s still evident in the island’s food today, and it stretches back almost three millennia, spanning cuisines of the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Goths, Moors, Normans, and Spanish.
In caponata, the fusion works like this: red wine vinegar, capers, and green olives provide the prominently sharp, salty, and sour counterweights to the syrupy, natural sweetness that comes from gently frying the celery, red onions, and cherry tomatoes. Their natural sweetness is then accentuated by sugar (no surprise there), raisins, and a no-frills tomato purée known as passata.
At the same time, that gentle, barely-coloring frying also brings out the inherently savory, umami tastes of the onion, tomato, and celery. This savoriness then gets its own boost from how you work with the eggplant and zucchini to maximize their umami output, by fiercely sizzling them hot and fast in vegetable oil until their cut sides turn the color of golden sunshine.
Before they hit the oil, the chunks of eggplant get a generous coating of salt to draw out some of their water content and beef-up their meaty texture. The zucchini doesn’t get the salt-treatment. They’re peeled in stripes, sliced into inch-thick rounds, and their raw firmness gets locked in when they encounter the high-heat oil.
Once the frying’s done, all the ingredients get mixed gently together in a big pot with the thinly sliced fresh, red serranos, and the whole lot is left to simmer very slowly under a lid for 40 minutes or so. If you can find them, the home-town chilies of southern Italy, Calabrian peppers, would be molto autentico, but serranos or cayennes will fit in perfectly with your caponata’s fully loaded flavors.
You’ll find that the slow, steamy, simmer allows the eagerly absorbent eggplant to fill with flavors from its companion ingredients. And since the heat is low and slow, the capers, celery, raisins, onions, and tomatoes will keep much of their own texture and flavor. As for the chilies, they’ll keep almost all their fresh vibrancy because the simmer is all the cooking they get.
You’ll also find that the passata, vinegar, and sugar have mellowed down into a shiny, jammy sauce that flows silkily throughout your caponata. Let the pot cool to room temperature, and the magic is complete and ready to be revealed.
Now, many caponata recipes call for a sprinkling of toasted pine nuts or almonds as a sort of final garnishing. My opinion? Well, this dish is already so jam-packed with flavors that I don’t think it needs much else added to it.
Having said that, a few green olives alongside are lovely. And I do like a little roughly torn mint scattered on mine – as much for its cool, aromatic sweetness as for its burst of fresh, silvered green against a caponata that glows like mesmerizing embers.
Caponata and focaccia – a pretty perfect pairing
Warm from the oven, its top glistening with olive oil and shiny crystals of salt, an easily made focaccia loaf is a wonderful, meal-making partner for your caponata.
Break off generous chunk of it and you have an edible spoon for scooping caponata from your bowl until not a trace of it remains.
Caponata with Focaccia
For the caponata
- 3 fresh red serrano chilies cut into 1/8-inch thick discs, seeds and all. The ones I used were each about 2 inches long.
- 2 eggplants medium-sized, cut into squarish, 1-inch chunks. The 2 eggplants I used gave me a total weight of 1 1/3 pounds.(one and a third pounds)
- 3 zucchini medium-sized. Topped, tailed, and half-peeled in lengthwise stripes. Then cut into chunky, 1-inch dice.
- 1 red onion large-sized, peeled, halved, and cut into ¼ inch slices. My 3 zucchini weighed 9 ounces.
- 2 sticks celery cut into ¼ inch dice, with some care taken to keep it all that sort of size.
- ½ pound cherry tomatoes halved. I used a mixed selection of ripe-but-firm red, yellow, and green tomatoes. Ripe-but-firm is the important thing.
- 2 ½ ounces pitted green olives halved
- 1 ½ ounces raisins left whole
- 1 ½ ounces whole capers drained and left whole
- 1 tablespoon caster sugar
- ¾ cup passata Italian tomato purée
- ½ cup red wine vinegar
- 1 teaspoon ground sea salt
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 4 tablespoons olive oil for frying the onion, celery, and cherry tomatoes
- 3 cups sunflower oil for fast frying the eggplant and zucchini
- 2 heaped tablespoons ground sea salt for sprinkling over the diced aubergine to pull out some water
For the focaccia – makes one oblong loaf of about 14 inches by 9 inches
- 4 cups strong white bread flour
- 2 cups 00 flour Double zero. This sometimes gets tagged as doppio zero or pasta flour. It’s a very finely ground, typically Italian flour that will give your focaccia a lighter texture than 100% bread flour or all-purpose flour.
- 2 ½ level teaspoons dried yeast
- 9 tablespoons olive oil separated. 6 tablespoons for the dough, plus 3 tablespoons for brushing over the top of the focaccia before you bake it.
- 2 tablespoons ground sea salt separated. 1 tablespoon for the dough, plus 1 tablespoon for sprinkling over the oiled top of your focaccia before you bake it.
- 1 ½ cups water
Making your focaccia loaf
- In a mixing bowl large enough to hold all the ingredients, use a sturdy whisk to thoroughly combine both types of flour, the yeast, and the salt.
- Now gradually stir in the olive oil and the water. I did this in three goes, using a stout wooden spoon to stir until all the liquid was evenly absorbed by the flour. The dough will be very soft and fairly sticky, but it should come away cleanly from the sides of the bowl when you form it into a ball with your hands.
- Set the dough onto a work surface oiled with a little olive oil. This will help stop the dough from sticking to the surface as you knead it. Which is what happens right now – for 10 minutes.
- After that 10 minutes’ kneading, form the dough into a ball and put it back into your mixing bowl, and cover the bowl with a cloth. Set the bowl aside, so the dough can rest / rise for 60 minutes, during which time it will pretty much double in size.
- Now set the dough back on your oiled work surface and knead it again for 2 minutes. You want to form the dough into its shape for baking. To do this, I set the dough onto a large, oval, lightly oiled serving platter and used my hands to roughly flatten the dough into an oblong slab about ¾ inch thick.
- Brush the entire top of the shaped dough with 1½ tablespoons olive oil (half of the 3 tablespoons), and set it aside to rest / rise again for another 60 minutes. It might not quite double in size again, but it will sort of puff up to that sort of size.
- Five minutes before those 60 minutes is up, turn your oven to 450F / 230C, and set a baking tray on the middle shelf.
- Once the oven’s reached temperature, remove the baking tray and, quick as you can, transfer your shaped dough onto the hot baking tray. You’ll probably want to reshape the dough a little on the tray, but don’t be too worried about getting it all perfectly symmetrical.
- More importantly, quickly use your fingers to press a pattern of dimples into the surface of the dough. Press down hard enough to touch the baking tray but not to break right through the dough. I made a fairly random pattern of dimples that were about 2 inches apart.
- Fast as you can, brush the dimpled top of the dough with another ½ tablespoons of olive oil, and sprinkle the oiled surface with 2 heaped teaspoons salt.
- Set the baking tray back in the oven and let your focaccia loaf bake for 25 minutes or so until its top is pale-ish golden color.
- Remove the tray from the oven and let your focaccia cool on the tray 5 minutes. Done. Ready to serve with your caponata.
Making your caponata
- Place the chunks of eggplant in a large colander and sprinkle them with 2 heaped tablespoons salt. Use your fingers to make sure the chunks all get a pretty even coating of salt.
- Set the colander in a sink for 30 minutes so that the liquid drawn from the eggplant by the salt can slowly drain off. Once that’s happened, lay the chunks in a single layer on paper kitchen towel and pat them dry with some more towel. They’re now ready for some hot and fast frying – in two batches.
- Set a big saucepan on a high heat and add the sunflower oil. The 3 cups of oil I used filled my pan about a quarter full – that’s ideal because the hot oil will bubble up fiercely when you add the first batch of eggplant chunks. As soon as the surface of the oil starts to shimmer, use a big, slotted spoon to slowly lower your first batch of chunks into the oil.
- Keep the heat on high and let the chunks sizzle – with a couple of gentle stirs – in that hot oil for 3 minutes. You want the chunks to get a mid-golden color all over their cut sides. Remove the chunks with a slotted spoon and set them on kitchen towel to drain off any excess oil. Repeat the process with your next batch of eggplant. Time now to give the zucchini the same treatment.
- There’s less zucchini than eggplant, so I fried all the pieces of zucchini in one batch. Once again, you want the pan on a high heat to fry the zucchini hot and fast until they pick up a mid-gold color. That’ll take about 3 minutes, and once they’re nicely golden, remove the chunks with a slotted spoon and set them to drain alongside the eggplant. That’s all the hot and fast frying done.
- You’ll now need a lidded saucepan or skillet that’s big enough to hold all your caponata’s ingredients – first for gently frying the onion, celery, and tomatoes, and then for some low and slow simmering to finish the cooking.
- Set the pan on a medium heat and add the olive oil. Let the oil heat for a minute or so and stir in the onion, celery, and level teaspoon salt. Drop the heat to low-medium and slowly fry the onion and celery with a few stirs for about 7 minutes until they soften and just begin to pick up a little color.
- Now add the halved cherry tomatoes, raisins and sugar, and continue to fry the lot with a few stirs on that low-medium heat for another 5 minutes. You want the sugar to dissolve and the tomatoes to soften but to keep some of their body.
- Stir in the serrano peppers, passata, vinegar, olives, capers, black pepper, and the fried eggplant and zucchini. Take a little care with your stirring so as not to break the vegetables apart. As soon as the mix starts to bubble, drop the heat to low and cover your pan.
- You now want the covered pot to simmer very gently for 45 minutes. You may need to adjust the heat to make sure your caponata keeps just barely simmering for those 45 minutes. Bear in mind that it’s this simmer – with a few careful stirrings – that allows the caponata’s glorious sauce to thicken and turn jammily glossy, and for the serranos to melt their flavors into it. So, low and slow is the way to go.
- Once the simmering’s done, turn off the heat and taste-check for saltiness. Adjust according to your taste. Now let the covered pot stand for about an hour or two, so the caponata slowly cools to room temperature. That’s it. Your caponata is ready to serve.