One of the culinary joys of our recent trip was eating and comparing each cook's version of Sicilian Caponata, a condiment of chunky fried eggplant and other vegetables and seasonings, jam-packed with flavor—sweet, sour, salty all at once. A staple of the Sicilian diet, caponata is served in a variety of ways and every family has its own recipe. We learned how to make it during our cooking class with Silvia at Mandranova (see me stirring on the right) and have been craving it ever since! It can be used as a condiment for fish and meats, served with pasta, spooned onto bruschetta or just eaten on its own.
We were in charge of the Antipasti course at a Sicilian dinner Saturday night at our friend Carol's house. Kerry developed her own recipe for caponata, combining her ideas with classic ingredients and techniques from Silvia at Mandranova and Lidia Bastianich. It got rave reviews from the crowd!
2 yellow onions (1 pound approx), cut in 1-1/2 inch chunks
5 or 6 ribs celery, trimmed cut in 1/2-inch chunks
1-1/2 cup cerignola or other large green brine-cured olives, pitted and cut in ½-inch pieces
5-6 fresh plum tomatoes
1-1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
¼ cup capers if desired
1 cup cooking grade olive oil
extra-virgin olive oil
12-15 large fresh basil leaves
few springs of flat-leafed parsley
coarse sea salt or kosher salt
fresh ground black pepper
dried peperoncino flakes
3/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
Note: if olives are super salty, you may want to add less salt to the vegetable mix.
Trim the eggplant ends and partially skin them using a peeler to alternately remove skin in a striped fashion. Cut them into chunks about 2-inches long and 1-inch thick. Toss the chunks with 2 teaspoons of salt and drain in a colander for 30 minutes to an hour. Rinse and pat them dry with paper towels.
Meanwhile pour the red wine vinegar and 3/4 cup water into the small pan, stir in the sugar and bring to a boil. Simmer until reduced by half and syrupy, then remove from the heat.
Slice the onions into 1-1/2” pieces. Trim the celery stalks (and peel them if they’re tough and stringy) then chop in 1/2-inch chunks. Cut the plum tomatoes in half and scrape out the seeds and ribs. Slice lengthwise into 3/4-inch or so thick wedges. Roughly chop the pitted olives into ½-inch pieces.
To fry the eggplant, pour the cup of cooking grade olive oil into the skillet and set over medium-high heat, 360 deg. Spread all the eggplant chunks in the hot oil and fry for 10 to 15 minutes, tossing and stirring frequently, until the eggplant is soft and cooked through and golden brown on all sides. You will probably have to do this in a few batches as you don't want to crowd the eggplant. Lift the chunks out of the oil with a slotted spoon and spread them on paper towels to drain.
Pour ¼ cup of the extra virgin olive oil in another large skillet and set it over medium heat. Stir in the onion and celery chunks, season with 1/4 teaspoon salt and cook, tossing often, until they’ve wilted and lightly colored, 8-10 minutes or so. Toss in the olives and the capers, heat quickly until sizzling. Dilute the tomato paste with ¼ cup or so of water then mix in. Scatter in the tomatoes wedges and fold them in with the other vegetables. Season with another ¼ teaspoon salt, black pepper to taste, a few generous pinches of peperoncino. Cook until the tomatoes are hot and softened but still holding their shape, about 5 minutes.
Next pour the vinegar syrup all over and stir it in. Cook the vegetables together for about 8-10 more minutes, then turn off the heat. Tear the basil leaves into shreds, roughly chop the parsley and stir them into the vegetables. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper if needed.
Take the eggplant pieces and layer over the bottom of a large serving dish. Add the rest of the vegetables on top of the eggplant, but do not mix together. Allow the dish to cool and rest for 1 hour, then gently mix together. Drizzle the top with a bit of your finest olive oil and serve.
*We served the amazing 2006 Murgo Sparkling Rose from the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily with the antipasti platter. Made with Nerello Mascalese, this is the most unique sparkling wine we've tried in a long time! Currently available only at Swirl, $33.99.