Caponata, the iconic Sicilian eggplant dish

The deep purple and maroon hues of eggplants and their different shapes and sizes have always fascinated me. But for the longest time, I had a big aversion to them. Until I sampled eggplant dishes in Italy and Turkey. That’s when it hit me: I had simply never had eggplant this delicious before! My aversion had nothing to do with this beautiful vegetable, but everything with the way it was prepared.

I discovered my latest eggplant love during my recent trip to Sicily. Caponata, one of the most iconic dishes of the island’s wonderful cuisine is served there as an appetizer, sometimes at room temperature, sometimes cold. There are as many recipes as there are cooks, but all of them share one common trait – a delicious contrast of textures and aromas. Caponata is at once earthy and elegant, sweet and salty, comforting and very easy on the palate.

Make sure to use dark purple eggplants, preferably capers conserved in salt (vs. capers in vinegar), and a good quality red wine vinegar. Enjoy it with some crusty Italian bread and a glass of red wine, and you’ll wish summer would never end!

Caponata (serves 4 as an appetizer)
1 large eggplant (500 to 600g), cut into small cubes
300g pelati (canned peeled tomatoes)
50g green olives, cut into rounds
1 tablespoon capers in salt, rinsed
20g pine nuts
20g raisins
2 stalks celery, thinly sliced
1 onion, chopped
handful of fresh basil
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
extra virgin olive oil
salt, pepper
sea salt

1. Put eggplant cubes in a bowl and mix with a few tablespoons of sea salt (this will extract the bitterness of the eggplant).
2. Let stand for 10 minutes, then rinse well under lukewarm water. Pat dry.
3. Deep fry eggplant in olive oil for a few minutes.
4. Transfer to a plate lined with absorbent paper towels.
5. Deep fry celery in the same oil used for deep frying the eggplants.
6. Fry until golden and crispy, then transfer to a plate lined with absorbent paper towels.
7. Pour off excess oil from pan except for 3-4 tablespoons.
8. In remaining oil, sautee onion for a few minutes, then add tomatoes and their juices.
9. Crush tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon. Mix well and simmer for 10 minutes.
10. Add sugar and vinegar, and cook until almost all liquid has evaporated and the sauce is relatively dry.
11. Add pine nuts, raisins, capers, and olives.
12. Add eggplant, celery, and whole basil leaves.
13. Season with salt and pepper and simmer for a couple of minutes.
14. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.
15. Serve cold or at room temperature.

Enjoy!

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