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4 Oct 2010

Sicily Sweet and Sour

Sicilian Caponata

When at the Velveteers tavern we planned the hosting calendar, I chose the month of September when I would have been in Sicily.
Despite the good propositions, life in my family house can get easily out of hands. Too lazy, too relaxed, with rhythms other than my owns and the possibility that at any time somebody could drop in my room startling the hell out of me; it is not an easy environment where to concentrate in front of a screen, let alone that the TV right there, beside me. TV is indeed a strange beast, if you don’t have it you don’t miss it, but if it is around it will inevitably attract you like a magnet and so you are lost zapping between channels trying to find something watchable; settling often over a re-run of decades old TV-series (god bless Angela Lansbury and her Murder, She Wrote series!).
Days pass by like sand between your fingers; a coffee and chat with mom, some TV, some more chat with sis, more TV, brainstorming with mom about dinner, more TV. You don’t even notice and it is already dinner time and for me that means that I get to cook when all the others are already sit to dine (we have got only 3 working hobs). And so here I am, rather late for my monthly Velveteers post.

When I proposed to cook Caponata as the September Velveteers’ dish, I wanted to make it a family business but actually only I ended up eating the plated dish at the end of the shooting since we had already planned a chilli con carne night. I did though brainstorm with mom about the traditional way we are used to make this dish in my household so it still involved all the needed family members.

What is Caponata then? It is just one the best examples of vegetarian cooking in Sicilian traditional cuisine. A sour-sweet composition of fried eggplants, crunchy celery, capers, olives, onions and tomato (sometimes also peppers, potatoes and almonds); it is usually served cold or at room temperature as starter, side dish or over a crispy toasted slice of bread.
I did include in the description also tomatoes even if my mom almost kicked me out of the house when I mentioned them in conjunction with caponata. I must admit that I agree with her. Tomato for me makes this dish a tad too thick and rich, too saucy.
The origins of the dish are as controversial as they are the word's ones. Said to come from the Latin caupo (tavern keeper) or even from a sailors' joke (they were used calling capuon the dry galettes biscuit they had to eat); the dish has clearly morish-arabic origins considering that it is based on eggplants and that the use of sugar is quite extensive in this savoury dish. Who knows how it was called back then...

Eggplants have had a rough gastronomic life in Italy. Believed to be poor men's food, eggplants were disdained by the aristocratic cuisine throughout the centuries in Italian culinary traditions. They became soon associated with Jewish culture and so, as prejudices grew stronger, as something to be avoided. The vulgar etymology of the Italian name for eggplant, melanzana, didn't really help. Believed to come from "mala/mela insana" (unhealthy/poisonous apple) for most people the name casted already a judgement on the vegetable. The actual origin of the name seems to be Arabic, from the Persian bâdengân to be precise, to which Italians added the word mela (apple) making it "mela bâdengân/badingian" to become then melangian and so melanzana. It is curious to know that the other widespread denomination for this fruit, aubergine, comes from the same Persian word via the Catalan dialect.
It was only at the end of the 19th century that the renowned Italian gastronome Pellegrino Artusi wrote in his "Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well":

"Till forty years ago eggplants and fennel were rarely seen on the markets in Florence; they were despised as considered food for Jews, whom would then display here, as in other more important matters, that they have always had a better instinct than Christians" (liberally translated).

Not for nothing Artusi is considered as the father of Italian gastronomy for including in his book recipes from all the different regions newly united under the Italian flag.
Eggplants are now an easy go-to vegetable. Fried or grilled, fresh or pickled, as side dish or main dish, many are the preparations that feature them. In Campania, they even cook them as dessert in a thick dark chocolate sauce; chocolate was indeed liberally used in the south of Italy in the past.
Where I come from, fried eggplants, either in slices or in cubes, are a beloved addition to the Sunday meal of rigatoni pasta in fresh tomato sauce and basil. The combination, crowned by a sprinkle of milky-white grated salted ricotta cheese, works so well that it gained it a parallel with Vincenzo Bellini's (not the cocktail!) masterpiece: The Norma.
Back on track, in my version of the Sicilian Caponata I have included the tomatoes, despite I believe them to be a post-Columbus corruption of a perfectly working archaic recipe. In my interpretation though, tomatoes are used as an integral element for the sour sweet component in the eggplants rather than as a linking sauce for the whole dish.

Sicilian Caponata

Sicilian Caponata
Ingredients (serve 2 as an appetizer):

Fried eggplants:
  • 1 medium eggplant diced (ca.200g);
  • Canola oil to fry;
  • Sugar and vinegar to taste.
Tomato Jelly:
  • 2 fresh tomatoes (220g), pureed with some water and sieved;
  • 1/8 tsp Baking Soda;
  • 1tsp vinegar;
  • Sugar to taste;
  • Salt.
Fried Onions:
  • 1/2 small onion, sliced;
  • 1-2 tbsp Olive oil;
  • 1tsp sugar;
  • 1tsp vinegar.
Caramelized Celery:
  • 1 tbsp sugar;
  • 12 sticks 1” celery without the tough external fibres;
  • 1-2 tbsp water;
  • 1tbsp vinegar.
Fried Peppers:
  • 1 small green pepper, horn-like variety (3 pimientos de pardon would work perfectly);
  • 1-1 1/2 tsp sugar;
  • 1-2 tsp vinegar.
  • 3-4 pitted green olives in brine, sliced;
  • 2tsp capers;
  • Vegetable oil;
  • Almonds, lightly toasted.
Put the diced eggplant in a bowl with water and salt; cover them with a plate and keep them submerged for roughly 40minuets to let them expel their bitterness.
Transfer the pureed tomatoes in a small saucepan and place it over low fire with the baking soda and some water if needed. Let it simmer down till it will be reduced to 1/2 tbsp or so of glaze; season it with the vinegar, sugar, salt and set aside.
Gently fry the onions in the olive oil till golden brown, transfer the oil in a little bowl and keep aside. Season the onions with some salt, vinegar and sugar to make them sour sweet and set them aside to cool.
At this point the eggplant should be ready to fry. In a large frying pan put enough oil so that 1 layer of eggplants will be submerged, and warm it up on medium fire. In the meantime, drain the eggplants and dry them using paper towel. To check the oil temperature, immerge the tip of a toothpick in it and if it will start bubbling then the oil is ready for frying.
Fry the eggplant dices in two or three batches to not overcrowd the pan and lower the oil temperature, this will ensure you a less oily end product. With a slotted spoon, move the eggplants around so they will colour uniformly and when they will look golden brown transfer them on some paper towel set on a cooling rack to drain and cool down.
For the celery, in a small skillet caramelise the sugar with a little water on a low to medium fire. When it will be golden brown add some water to dilute it and create a syrup. Add the celery sticks to the hot syrup and increase the fire under the skillet. Sauté for few minutes the celery adding the vinegar; the celery should still be crunchy at the end. Set the celery aside to cool down in the leftover syrup.
To make the sour sweet eggplants, transfer them to a skillet with the tomato jelly, some sugar and vinegar to taste if needed and toss on medium fire; once properly coated set aside to cool down.
Pan fry the green peppers in a little skillet till they will look blistered, add now the sugar and vinegar to make the sour-sweet.
When ready to serve, fry the cappers in some vegetable oil.
To assemble your caponata, spoon the eggplants over the plate, decorate with some peppers, the fried onions and the celery sticks. Scatter the fried capers, olive wheels and the almonds on the caponata.
Create your sauce by whisking together some oil from the fried onions with all the sour sweet syrups leftover from the various preparations; season it with salt and pepper if needed and drizzle over the caponata.

If you want to transform this dish in a more substantial main course, add to it some grilled swordfish dices.

The 4 Velveteers was started by Alessio, Aparna, Asha, and Pamela, who are passionate about different cuisines and food in general. Each month, we will attempt a new dish and share our experiences and the recipes we used. If you're interested in joining the Velveteers, please feel free to drop by our Google group.
Do, check out what the other Velveteers have created:
Aparna's Eggplant and Fig caponata;
Asha's Sicilian Caponata over Z'atared Lavash Crackers;
Ken's Olive oil Financiers with Caponata Jam;
Madhuli's Yotam Ottolenghi’s Caponata;
Sarah's Caponata;
Veena's Sicilian Caponata.


  1. Thanks for that lovely background on the caponata. Didn't know that tomatoes are not traditional to the dish.
    Looks like the "bâdengân" has also given the eggplant its name in India. Here, its called "baingan" in Hindi and in Indian English we refer to it as "brinjal" (probably from the Portuguese beringela).

    Btw, I still love watching Murder She Wrote, and saw an old episode 2 days back on TV! LOL

  2. I love caponata, Alessio - and I'm so glad you don't put tomatoes in yours. :-) I'm cracking up that you and I are ALWAYS watching the same TV shows! :-)

  3. I like the combination of sweet and sour. What a very creative dish. I really like it.

  4. Oh yum, that looks fabulous Al!