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.