Caponata is a Sicilian appetizer that is made from eggplant, and since eggplant season is almost over, I decided to share with you Nonna Sara’s recipe. Throughout Sicily, there are countless variations of Caponata, some with octopus, seafood or with pinenuts and raisins, but Nonna’s recipe adds potatoes and bell peppers, which is what I grew up on and is my standard for a delicious Caponata.
My favorite way to eat it is by toasting some ciabatta bread slices and piling some room temperature Caponata on top of each slice.
Let’s dive into the history of this delicious Sicilian Appetizer.
What is Caponata?
Greeks, Normans, Carthaginians, Arabs, Spaniards and the French have dominated Sicily over the centuries, influencing and gradually enriching the local cuisine.
If you add to this mix of cultures the products of the sea, you can easily guess the reason for its unique cuisine.
It is in this context that the Caponata and its sweet and sour dressing make it one of the most representative dishes of the Sicilian cuisine.
The main ingredient is, of course, the eggplant (Solanum melongena), a plant belonging to the Solanaceae family. It is often called “bad apple” because of the solanine which gives it the typical bitter and slightly acidic taste.
Its origins are not yet well known. It seems, however, that this vegetable comes from the hot areas of South Asia, perhaps from eastern India and China. The eggplant was not known either by the Greeks or by the Romans until it was brought to Sicily by the Arabs from North Africa. They introduced it gradually after their conquest of Sicily, starting in 827 with the landing at Mazara del Vallo and finishing in 1091 with the fall of Noto.
Another essential ingredient of the Caponata is the tomato, which arrived with Christopher Colombus on his return from the Americas a few centuries later. Onions, olives, capers, celery, vinegar and sugar complete the list of ingredients, (although the celery was initially used only for ornamental purposes).
The fundamental element that characterizes the caponata is the agro-sweet seasoning, and it is once again thanks to the Arabs.
In fact, this characteristic agro-sweet seasoning had been central to Arab cuisine since ancient times, and it arrived in Sicily always thanks to those who were accustomed to the contrast between spicy and sweet.
Yes, but how do we get to the caponata?
A Little Bit of History of This Eggplant Appetizer
Although there are no studies on the subject or theories demonstrated on the etymology of the word itself, some texts indicate that it could have relations with the Iberian terms of capirottata, capirotada or capironades. It also has a close relationship to the Latin term “caupona”, which means tavern, meaning that it is basically the equivalent of “tavern food”.
Another school of thought claims that the sailors were the first to use this sweetish sauce to soften their hard pieces of bread called “capon of jail.”
Still others say that this agro-dessert was used to season the “capone” (lampuga), a white fish with fine dry meat that was served on the tables of the Sicilian nobles. But if it was normal for the nobles to have this dish, the same can not be said for the people who, not being able to afford the luxury of buying the fish, adapted the dish to fit their economic situation, replacing it with eggplant.
The first official mention of the real eggplant caponata dates back to 1759, in a book printed in Messina where it is defined as “dish made of various things”.
Variations of the Dish
Throughout the island there are about 40 variations of caponata, and you just need to travel from one city to another to discover a different version. They all have a common treat: the sweet and sour dressing, which gives the vegetables a unique flavor.
Every city or town has its own particular interpretation. In Palermo, for example, the caponata does not include peppers, whose presence would be an inconceivable transgression.
In Sicily itself, in the same province, in the same country there are different versions and they all point out the same absolute certainty that their own is the correct one, the only truthful one.
Recipes are different from each other, but what is handed down from mother to daughter is always the same because the caponata remains a treasure of every family, a recipe that should be handed down from generation to generation to continue the tradition.
Today it is generally enjoyed as an appetizer or a side dish, and must be consumed cold at room temperature, but originally it was a unique dish to accompany with bread, an essential ingredient in caponata.
Sicilian Caponata Recipe – Italian Eggplant Appetizer
This version is all vegetables and the flavors are bursting with each bite. It is a great appetizer to have with a glass of Sicilian Corvo Rosso wine that your guests will thoroughly enjoy.
- 5 tablespoons olive oil ((for each vegetable))
- 1 1/2 pound eggplant (unpeeled, 1/2 inch dice)
- 1 large onion (diced)
- 1 teaspoon salt ( for each batch of vegetables)
- 1 green bell pepper (small. 1/2 inch dice)
- 1 red bell pepper (small. 1/2 inch dice)
- 2 yukon gold potatoes (medium. diced)
- 1/2 cup gaeta black olives ((or kalamata olives))
- 3 celery stalks (1/2 inch dice)
- 1 14 1/2 ounce can tomato sauce
- 1/3 cup red wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons capers (rinsed and drained)
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup fresh basil (chopped)
- salt (to taste)
- pepper (to taste)
Sprinkle the eggplant with salt and put in a colander over a bowl for 10 minutes. Transfer to a large clean towel and pat dry.
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add the olive oil and potatoes and cook them until golden stirring occasionally.
Transfer to a bowl and set aside. Discard the oil and clean the pan.
In the same skillet add another 5 tablespoons of olive oil and start frying the bell peppers until soft. Transfer to the bowl and set aside. Discard the oil and clean the pan.
In the same skillet add another 5 tablespoons of olive oil and fry the eggplant. Watch them, as they may need more oil. When done transfer the bowl and set aside. Discard the oil and clean the pan.
Return skillet to heat, add onions, celery and carrots and cook, stirring continuously to allow caramelization for 10 minutes.
Reduce heat to medium, and add tomato sauce and continue cooking for 10 minutes.
Stir in olives, vinegar, capers, sugar and all the fried vegetables and mix together.
Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve at room temperature.
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