Caponata alla Siciliana
large splash of olive oil (more to follow)
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 tbl of capers, rinsed
generous splash of vinegar (a decent cheap balsamic is delicious, though not authentic)
sugar to taste (be cautious and check as it’s cooking)
salt, pepper (adjust at the end)
½ cup (or whatever) pitted green olives
a few fresh tomatoes, or a can
2 large aubergines, diced
4 bell [sweet] peppers, diced, preferably red and yellow for color
2 celery hearts, cut in short slices
1 fennel root
Start with a very large frying pan or heavy pot. Heat the oil, then add the onions. (A good splash of water lets you cook them limp more quickly without burning.) Add the capers, vinegar, olives and seasoning.
Meanwhile, put the tomatoes, either raw or canned, through a blender or food processor. This speeds up the cooking process and reduces the amount of water that may be needed to avoid scorching. (If you’re using fresh tomatoes, this makes it unnecessary to peel them, and the skins are where much of the nourishment and flavor reside. Likewise the peppers.) Add the tomatoes to the pan along with a good pinch of thyme and simmer very slowly, covered, until it’s a thick sauce.
Meanwhile prepare the other ingredients. This is where I get really inauthentic. I cook the aubergines, then the peppers, then the celery/fennel in a microwave, in a covered Pyrex dish with a splash of olive oil, a cautious pinch of salt and a bit of water, for about 20 minutes each. Cook the celery and fennel together; they will probably take longer. Let each ingredient barely reach tenderness and immediately drain so that they don’t continue to stew in their own juices. Reduce these to their essence and add them to the pan.
When all the ingredients have been cooked to their ideal state, add them to the pan and bring them to a low simmer, allowing them to get acquainted with each other for a few minutes; don’t overcook into a mush. Transfer to other containers and let cool.
This is a recipe that can be made in any quantity that your utensils can accommodate. A microwave is not essential—slow sweating in a heavy pot will suffice, though it will take longer. The vegetables can be cooked at any time, in any order, and reserved until needed.
Ingredients? In the versions we ate in Sicily, both proportions and size of cut were freely varied. Yesterday I didn’t have any aubergines, but I had a bargain tray of courgettes. I was careful not to overcook them and served the end product to Mary when she came home. She didn’t notice the substitution.
Yet another variation. Caponata as it is traditionally made is rather heavy on the olive oil. If you want a low calorie version consistent with any diet, just make the dish with no fat whatsoever: it will not be the same but it will be delicious. That’s what real peasant cuisine is all about—work with what you’ve got, towards whatever result you set for yourself, and take pleasure in your inventiveness!
©2006 John Whiting