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Caponata is a Sicilian appetizer made from eggplant. 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 use octopus and seafood, other pine nuts and raisins.
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 slices and piling some Caponata on top of each slice. Like a crostini.
Let’s dive into the history of this delicious Sicilian Appetizer.
What is Caponata?
Greeks, Normans, Carthaginians, Arabs, Spaniards and the French dominated Sicily over the centuries. They gradually influenced and enriched 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 this context that makes Caponata on of the most representative dishes of Sicilian cuisine.
The main ingredient is the eggplant, a plant belonging to the Solanaceae family. It is often called “bad apple” because of the solanine which gives it the typical bitter and acidic taste.
Its origins are not yet well known. It seems, however, that this vegetable hails from the hot areas of South Asia, perhaps from eastern India and 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 starting 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 Colombus 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 agro-sweet seasoning is the fundamental element that characterizes the caponata, and again we owe it to the Arabs.
In fact, this peculiar seasoning had been central to Arab cuisine since ancient times. It landed in Sicily again thanks to the Arabs who enjoyed 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
There are no proven theories on the etymology of the word caponata. However, some say that it could be related with the Iberian terms capirottata, capirotada or capironades.
It also has a close relationship to the Latin term “caupona”, which means tavern, meaning that it is the equivalent of “tavern food”.
Others claim that the sailors were the first to use this sweetish sauce to soften their hard pieces of bread called “cappone di galera.”
Still others say that this sweet and bitter dish was only consumed by Sicilian nobles. Who served it alongside the “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 that most people were not able to afford. So, they replaced it with eggplant, adapting the dish to fit their economic situation.
The first official mention of the real eggplant caponata dates back to 1759 in a book printed in Messina. It was defined as a “dish made of various things”.
Variations of the Dish
Throughout the island there are about 40 variations of caponata. Traveling from one city to the next is the best way to discover different versions. However, they all have one thing in common: 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. There, including them, would be an inconceivable transgression.
Even within the same village there are different versions. Each one claimed to be the correct version, the only authentic one.
Though many different recipes exist and though they are each unique they have one thing in common. Each caponata recipe is treasured by every family and handed down from generation to generation.
While originally it was a complete meal served with bread, today caponata is generally enjoyed as an appetizer or a side dish, and must be eaten at room temperature.
Sicilian Caponata Recipe - Italian Eggplant Appetizer
- 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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