caponata

From Living Within, September

Marble fragment of the Great Eleusinian Relief, Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Demeter, the goddess of agricultural abundance, stands at the left, clad in a peplos and himation (cloak) and holding a scepter.”

It’s funny how things have a habit of turning out alright in the end; summer did get here, eventually, and now that we have reached September all is right in Demeter’s corner of heaven as the harvests start coming home - almost on schedule.

But before we move on to the harvests, let’s just pause a moment to appreciate while we still can the bounty of summer’s heat. I want to show you sunshine in a bowlful of Caponata. First introduced, as far as I am concerned, by Inspector Montalbano in last year’s television series (filling the BBC4 Nordic noir slot while the nation was on holiday and not really watching) - Sicilian, gutsy, handsome in a rugged kind of way, caponata, has become a firm favourite of mine. An amalgam of summer veg with aubergine at its heart, held together in a sweetly sour binding of tomato and vinegar, caponata is pretty elastic in allowable ingredients and even better the day after making.

Here is a version that I have made recently, as authentic or inauthentic as any other, perhaps, as there appears to be no consensus in Sicily as to what is acceptable - feel free to tweak it with additions, omissions or substitutions as you will.

Aubergines and courgettes (a few of each) - chop into pieces about an inch cubed, give a light sprinkle with salt and leave to drain in a colander for as long as you are able (anything from 15 minutes to a couple of hours - the vegetables will disgorge some of their liquid during this process).

Onions, celery, garlic - roughly chop a large onion, take the fine yellow heart of a head of celery and chop into pieces roughly the same size as you have the onion, and slice or chop some garlic.

Tomatoes - use fresh if they are ripe and flavoursome, tinned at a pinch - core, skin, halve, and squeeze out the seeds of a few large tomatoes and chop coarsely.

Warm some olive oil in a heavy-based frying pan, soften the onion and the celery (about 10 minutes over medium/low heat) - until the onion is just thinking about turning gold - lower the heat, add the garlic and allow to soften for a minute more; add in the tomatoes, a little salt, turn up the heat, and cook until the tomatoes are pulpy, thick and saucy; add in a couple of teaspoons of wine vinegar and about the same of sugar, cook for a few minutes longer, taste and adjust the seasoning and then leave to cool a little.

Squeeze out some of the water from the salted vegetables, lay them out on kitchen paper and dry them as much as you are able. Heat some oil in a clean heavy-based frying pan - enough to shallow fry or to deep fry as you will - then fry the vegetables, in batches (never overcrowd the pan), remove from the oil when golden brown all over and drain on more kitchen paper and sprinkle with a little more vinegar.

When finished, add the fried vegetables to a large bowl. Mix in with them: a handful of toasted pine nuts (toast in a single layer in a hot oven for a few minutes only - watch them like a hawk so that they do not burn!); a tablespoon or two of rinsed preserved capers; a small handful of pitted olives (of any colour of your choosing or a mix, whole or halved) and, finally, the tomato sauce. Add in some chopped fresh herbs (basil, parsley or, even, mint would all be acceptable) and adjust the seasoning to your taste - some freshly ground black pepper if no more salt is needed. Finally add a good drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Leave, covered, for the flavours to meld in their residual heat for as long as you can (15 minutes if you are in a hurry but a couple of hours is best). Serve at room temperature - never cold or the range of flavours will be dulled.

As with almost all cooking, the quality of your ingredients will dictate the end result. Choose well flavoured examples of everything that you use, from the oil to the salt. Caponata can be served as a meal in itself (with some crusty bread alongside to mop up the juices) or as antipasto or accompaniment to other things. Buon Appetito!

Erica x

“‘What did you eat?'… 'Caponata.’ he said in a choked-up voice
How on earth was it possible to get a lump in one’s throat simply by uttering the word 'caponata’?” ~Andrea Camilleri