Region: Italy, Sicily
Category: Antipasto, Meze, Tapas, and Hors d’Oeuvres
Season: Any
Difficulty: Labor Intensive

Caponata, the Sicilian eggplant dish, is usually served as an antipasto at room temperature. Cooking the ingredients separately in the same pan, then mixing them afterwards, improves the quality of the dish. Your frying oil should be clean and new. Versions of this famous preparation call for fried pine nuts, almonds, sliced eggs, basil, or ground chocolate. Sicilian restaurants add lobster, shrimp, or bottarga (dried salted tuna roe). Other additions found are artichokes, wild asparagus, and baby octopus. The following recipe is the basic one.

Yield: Makes 8 servings
Preparation Time: 1:30 hours

2 medium-size eggplants (about 3 pounds), cut in 3/ 4-inch cubes with their peels
6 cups olive oil or olive pomace oil for frying
1 bunch celery, without the leafy tops, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, sliced
1 6-ounce can tomato paste or 3 ripe plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and
finely chopped
4 teaspoons sugar
1 cup good quality red wine vinegar (not balsamic)
2 tablespoons capers, washed and chopped if very large
1/2 cup imported green olives, pitted
  Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder (optional)

1. Lay the eggplant cubes on some paper towels and sprinkle with salt. Leave them to drain of their bitter juices for 30 minutes, then pat dry with more paper towels.

2. Preheat the frying oil in a deep-fryer or an 8-inch saucepan fitted with a basket insert to 375 degrees F. Deep-fry the eggplant cubes in batches without crowding until brown and crispy, about 7 to 8 minutes, turning once. Drain on paper towels and set aside.

3. Clean the celery and wipe dry with paper towels. Deep-fry the celery pieces in batches without crowding until the edges are golden, about 2 minutes. Drain on paper towels and set aside. Let the frying oil cool completely, strain, and save for a future use.

4. Take 1/ 2 cup of the oil you used to deep-fry the eggplant and celery and mix it with the extra virgin olive oil. In a large casserole, heat this oil mixture over medium-high heat, then cook the onion slices until translucent, about 6 minutes, stirring. Reduce the heat to medium, add the tomato paste mixed with a little water or the tomatoes, stir, and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Gently stir in the sugar, vinegar, capers, olives, eggplants cubes, and celery. Sprinkle with salt, if necessary, and pepper and add the cocoa, if using. Cook until the mixture is heated through, about 10 minutes, folding carefully several times instead of stirring. Leave to cool and serve at room temperature.

Note:  Caponata can be served hot, but does not have a chance to mellow that way, and is preferable at room temperature as an antipasto.

Posted: 01/10/2007

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