Eggplant caponata is an Italian appetizer from Sicily made from eggplant and other fried vegetables served at room temperature. Throughout Sicily, there are countless variations of the caponata recipe. Some use octopus and seafood, other pine nuts and golden raisins. Nonna’s recipe has potatoes and bell peppers, which is what I grew up on and is my standard for a delicious caponata.
My favorite way to eat this delicious eggplant dish is by toasting some ciabatta bread slices and piling some caponata on top of each slice. When eaten this way it is like a rich, filling crostini or bruschetta. Caponata can also be served as a side dish to grilled chicken, other meats or even your favorite main fish dishes. While not totally authentic, roasted eggplant caponata can also be used as a pasta sauce with penne pasta and a sprinkling of grated cheese.
Equipment needed to make this Sicilian dish
large skillet for frying this versatile dish
colander for salted eggplant and then for rinsing
plates or bowls for preparing various vegetables
paper towels to dry eggplant and to absorb excess oil from fried eggplant
large serving bowl to serve the caponata
Ingredients you will need for caponata
Extra virgin olive oil (20 tablespoons) – you will need about 5 tablespoons of olive oil to cook each of the various vegetables separately.
Eggplant (1 1/2 pound) – you can leave the skin on the eggplant. Then dice it into 1/2 inch pieces before adding salt as directed to remove any bitter flavor it may have.
Onion (1 large) – you can use any type of onion you prefer. Dice it into very small pieces.
Bell peppers (1 small green bell and 1 small red) – clean, remove seeds, top and insides, and then chop the bell peppers into 1/2 inch pieces.
Yukon gold potatoes (2 medium) – you can scrub the outside, peel the potatoes and chop into large pieces before cooking them as directed.
Gaeta black olives (1/2 cup) – you can use Gaeta black olives or kalamata olives. We prefer to use pitted olives but either can be used.
Celery (3 stalks) – be sure to use fresh celery that is still crispy and clean and cut into 1/2 inch pieces.
Tomato sauce (14 1/2 ounce can) – besides tomato sauce, you can use canned tomatoes or fresh tomatoes that have been diced, although you will need to cook these longer to get the right consistency. Other options include using tomato paste and some water to dilute it.
Vinegar (1/3 cup) – feel free to use either red wine vinegar or white wine vinegar or some more modern recipes even call for balsamic vinegar.
Capers (2 tablespoons) – you should rinse and drain the capers, which can be either the small or large variety, before adding to this caponata recipe. If you are not a fan of capers, feel free to leave them out.
Sugar (2 tbsp) – while we usually use white sugar, some recipes do call for brown sugar, which gives a more intense caramel flavor.
Fresh basil or fresh parsley (1/2 cup) – prepare the fresh basil by washing it and removing the stems and then chopping up into pieces before adding. While traditionally the recipe uses basil, people often use chopped parsley instead. Whichever fresh herbs you choose, you can prepare and use them in the same way.
Kosher salt (to taste) – you will need some salt to remove the bitter flavor from the eggplant at the beginning and then salt to flavor the dish as you prepare it, you can mix salt into each of the vegetables or add salt near the end.
Black pepper (to taste) – you can add a little black pepper or even some red pepper flakes if you want to make your caponata recipe spicy.
Toasted bread (as desired) – we love caponata served on top of bread slices that are toasted to perfection. You can even drizzle with a little of the remaining olive oil if you like or sprinkle some fresh chopped herbs on top. Instead of a side dish, you can use this delicious recipe as a pasta sauce if you prefer, making al dente pasta and adding this sweet and sour sauce while it is still warm.
How to make Sicilian eggplant caponata step-by-step
Remove the eggplant’s bitter flavor. Place the diced eggplant pieces in a colander over a bowl and sprinkle with salt (photo 1). Let the salted eggplant sit for 20-30 minutes to remove its bitter taste. Rinse with water and transfer the eggplant to a large clean towel (photo 2) and pat the eggplant with paper towels to remove excess moisture.
Prepare the vegetables. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add the extra virgin olive oil, toss the potatoes and cook them until golden brown, stirring occasionally (photo 3). Once the potatoes are ready, transfer them to a medium bowl lined with layers of paper towel 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 and lightly browned (photo 4). Transfer to the bowl with the potatoes and set aside. Discard the oil and clean the pan.
Fry the eggplant. In the same large skillet add another 5 tablespoons of olive oil and fry the eggplant (photo 5). Watch it while it cooks, as it may need more oil. When it’s soft, transfer the cooked eggplant to the bowl with the other vegetables and set aside. Discard the oil and clean the pan. Return skillet to heat, add olive oil, onions, and celery, and cook, stirring continuously, for about 10 minutes to allow them to caramelize (photo 6).
Cook the sauce and stir everything together. Reduce to medium heat, add tomato sauce, and continue cooking for 10 minutes stirring occasionally. Stir in the olives, vinegar, capers, sugar, and all the veggies and mix together (photo 7). You can add salt and pepper to taste if you haven’t already. Cook slowly for a couple of minutes while mixing gently. Turn off the heat, add the chopped basil (photo 8) and mix and then let it cool to room temperature.
Serve. You can serve this traditional Sicilian dish as a side dish in a large serving bowl with a basket of crusty bread slices of your choosing.
Variations of this eggplant dish
Throughout Sicily, you can encounter close to 40 variations of caponata recipes. However, they all have one thing in common: the sweet and sour sauce in this side dish which gives the vegetables their unique flavor.
Palermo style. In Palermo the authentic caponata does not include bell pepper.
Make pasta with it. You can use caponata as a pasta sauce by leaving it warm and preparing 400 grams (1 lb) of penne pasta by following the package instructions for al dente pasta and then adding to the still-warm sauce at the end and stirring until completely covered. You can serve eggplant caponata pasta with a sprinkling of Parmigiano Reggiano if desired.
Balsamic vinegar. While not an authentic caponata ingredient, some modern recipes call for balsamic vinegar instead of other types of vinegar for an even sweeter and richer flavor.
No potato and some pine nuts and raisins instead. For something quite different, which is in fact another famous version of eggplant caponata recipe, you can substitute the potato with 1 tablespoon of toasted pine nuts and 1 tablespoon of raisins (regular or golden raisins) stirred in at the end with the remaining ingredients.
Treat the eggplant to remove bitter flavor. Do not skip the step of removing the bitter taste from the eggplant, only salt can do this. Let the eggplant sit with the salt on it as it drains away the bitterness and then rinse well to remove the salt and then pat the eggplant dry. Without doing this necessary step, your caponata recipe could be very bitter which will dominate the other flavors and ruin the dish.
Make caponata ahead of time. Make the caponata ahead of time and let it sit at room temperature or in the fridge in an airtight container if you make it more than two hours before you want to serve it. This will allow the flavors to really meld together and then it can be served cold or room temperature like authentic caponata.
How to store leftover caponata
Like most eggplant dishes, you can store caponata in the fridge for up to 3 days in a covered glass or plastic airtight container. Before serving, bring it back to room temperature by removing it from the fridge a few hours before serving.
How to serve caponata
While originally it was a complete meal served with crusty bread, today eggplant caponata is generally enjoyed as an appetizer or a side dish. Either way it should be eaten at room temperature.
Why is it called caponata?
We are not sure about the etymology of the word caponata. Some experts say that it could be related to the Iberian terms capirottata, capirotada or capironades . It also seems closely related to the Latin term caupona, which means tavern, so perhaps to signify it was a “tavern food”. Still others claim that the sailors were the first to use this sweetish sauce to soften their hard pieces of bread, calling it “cappone di galera.”
Still others say that this sweet and sour dish was consumed by Sicilian nobles who served it alongside “capone” (mahi-mahi), a white fish with fine dry meat. While it was normal for the nobles to eat this dish, it was a luxury the rest of the population could not afford. So, peasants replaced the fancy fish with easily found eggplant. The first official mention of authentic caponata dates back to 1759 in a book printed in Messina where it was defined as “a dish made of various things.”
What is the difference between ratatouille and authentic caponata?
The biggest difference between ratatouille and caponata is that ratatouille usually has garlic and caponata has green olives and capers. Ratatouille often is stewed or sauteed and has less tomato and is presented in a more decorative manner than caponata which has vegetables that are usually fried and a final look that resembles a stew or sauce.
Sicilian Caponata Recipe
This easy recipe for eggplant caponata is bursting with vegetables and flavors and is totally vegetarian. It is a great appetizer to have with a glass of Sicilian Corvo Rosso wine that your guests will thoroughly enjoy.
Place the diced eggplant pieces in a colander over a bowl and sprinkle with salt. Leave for 20-30 minutes so the eggplant loses its bitter taste. Rinse with water and transfer the eggplant to a large clean towel and pat dry with paper towels.
In a large skillet, over medium-high heat, add the extra virgin olive oil, toss the potatoes and cook them until golden brown, stirring occasionally.
Once the potatoes are ready, transfer them to a medium bowl lined with layers of paper towel and set aside. Discard the oil and clean the pan.
In the same large skillet, add another 5 tablespoons of oil and start frying the bell peppers until soft and lightly browned. Transfer to the bowl with the potatoes 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 it while it cooks, as it may need more oil. When it’s soft, transfer the cooked eggplant to the bowl with the other vegetables and set aside. Discard the oil and clean the pan.
Return skillet to heat, add olive oil, onions and celery and cook, stirring continuously for about 10 minutes to allow them to caramelize.
Reduce heat to medium, add the tomato and continue cooking for 10 minutes stirring occasionally.
Stir in the olives, vinegar, capers, sugar and all the veggies and mix together. You can add some kosher salt and black pepper to taste if you haven’t added it yet. Cook slowly over medium heat for a couple of minutes while mixing gently.
Turn off the heat, add the chopped basil and mix the caponata and then let it cool to room temperature.
Serve caponata in a large bowl along with a basket of crusty bread slices of your choosing.
You can replace the can of sauce with the same amount of ripe plum tomatoes or other canned crushed tomatoes. Some recipes actually use a combination of tomato paste and water. When not using sauce, be aware that the tomatoes will need to cook longer to get the right consistency, you can even crush them a little with the back of a fork.
Garlic and carrots are not ingredients in the traditional eggplant caponata recipe.
Instead of frying, you can roast the eggplant and other vegetables for a lighter flavor. You can add the roasted eggplant and other vegetables directly into a red sauce.
Over the centuries the island of Sicily was dominated by the Greeks, Normans, Carthaginians, Arabs, Spaniards and French. These cultures influenced and enriched the local cuisine and led to so many amazing flavors that we find today.
It is this context that makes traditional Caponata one of the most representative dishes of Sicilian cuisine. The main ingredient is the Italian eggplant, a plant belonging to the Solanaceae or Nightshade family. It is often called a “bad apple” because of the solanine, which is where its bitter, acidic taste comes from. Its origins are not well known. It seems, however, that this vegetable hails from the hot areas of Southern Asia, perhaps from Eastern India or China.
Greeks and Romans weren’t familiar with eggplant until the Arabs brought it to Sicily from North Africa. They introduced it after the conquest of the island beginning in 827. It slowly became an important ingredient in Sicilian cuisine and is used in many recipes.
Another essential ingredient of the Caponata is the tomato. Christopher Columbus brought it to Europe from the Americas a few centuries later. To complete the list of the ingredients we find onions, olives, capers, celery, vinegar and sugar. Although celery was initially used only for ornamental purposes.
The sweet and sour flavor is a fundamental element that characterizes eggplant caponata, and again we owe it to the Arabs. In fact, this peculiar flavor had been central to Arab cuisine since ancient times. It arrived to Sicily thanks to them and became popular on the island.