Looked at closely, a culture’s signature foods are often just stories about its history. Such is certainly the case with Sicilian caponata. (Or, for more examples, our hamburger, the sauces of France or the curries of India.)
Caponata, a prototypical preparation of Sicily, is the history of the people of the island itself. It is a mosaic. From the Arabs, who are perhaps Sicily’s most significant influence, caponata received its distinct agrodolce (sweet-sour) taste and the main vegetable in caponata, the eggplant; from the Greeks, its olives; from France and Spain, its many other vegetables; and from Italy, its mother, the tomato.
In his classic, “The Food of Italy,” Waverley Root describes the perfect caponata that he enjoyed from the hands of one Signore Falzone: “It did not give the impression of having a single taste, a synthesis produced by its several components. It had as many different flavors as it had ingredients, all perceived at the same time without losing their separate personalities.”
As for preparation, well, there is a multitude, as many (or more) in number as Root’s “several components.” In Palermo, to the north of Sicily, the cooks add pine nuts or almonds (or both), sometimes raisins, even cocoa powder. In Catania, on the eastern coast, they add potatoes. The southern region around Agrigento uses a special sweet pepper called the Arramascati.
But in the west, around Marsala, the argument is made that the purest, most traditional caponata shines. And so, I turned to Denver cook and baker Francesco Spatola, born and raised in Marsala, for his recipe for caponata.
Spatola, who along with his wife Julie, owns and runs Wheat Ridge, Colorado’s Dolce Sicilia bakery, learned cooking from his mother, Michelina and from a set of Sicilian uncles. His caponata eschews nearly all the gee-gaws from the cities distant from Marsala, except the Catanian signature of both red and yellow bell peppers.
And he blanches all his vegetables, quite a departure from the common frying or sautéing in olive oil of especially the eggplant. My raised eyebrows soon softened after I cooked his recipe myself, a step that I particularly appreciate.
Eggplant sponges up so much olive oil in the traditional caponata recipe that the end result often is a caponata that is cloyingly oleaginous. Spatola’s treatment avoids that. His caponata consequently is much brighter of flavor and, as a comment, closer to Root’s description of a well-made caponata.
Some say caponata got its name from the fish called “capone” with which it was traditionally served. (The true origin of the name is unclear.) In Sicily, the salad — a helpful designation — is almost always an accompaniment to fish, which itself is almost always the main meal on the island.
It usefully serves that purpose for us, especially alongside grilled fish (especially swordfish and tuna steaks). But caponata plays many roles.
“It can be eaten solo,” says Spatola, speaking about a bowl of it only, not the singularity of the diner, “or on bruschetta, or as a sort of muffuletta (sandwich). It’s also just an appetizer; that is very common in Sicily.”
Always make caponata at least one day ahead; it needs the time to blend its flavors. And serve it at room temperature (although it refreshingly may be eaten cool). That way, you best will savor Root’s “many different flavors as it has ingredients.”
Sicilian Caponata Spatola
Makes 12 cups. The recipe easily may be halved; just use smaller vegetables and halve the other measurements.
3 medium eggplants, peeled (if desired), cut into 1-inch chunks
3 large stalks celery, cut into 1-inch chunks
3 bell peppers, one each yellow, red, and green, seeded and chunked, and mixed together
1/4 cup fruity extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, peeled, cut into large dice
3 tablespoons capers, rinsed, drained, and squeezed
1 cup Castelvetrano olives, pitted, cut up
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
3/4 cup warm water
1 cup tomato purée, canned or homemade
10 large basil leaves, stemmed and casually torn
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Set a large pot of salted water to the boil. Blanch the eggplant, celery and the 3 peppers in 3 separate batches: Add each vegetable to the boiling water, and when the water returns to the boil, blanch for 2-3 minutes, removing each batch as it is blanched and setting it in a colander to drain. Meanwhile, make the agrodolce: Mix the sugar, vinegar and water in a small bowl or cup and set aside, making sure that the sugar has dissolved.
In a Dutch oven or large skillet, over medium-high heat, sauté the onion in the olive oil until it begins to turn translucent, about 6-7 minutes. Add all the drained vegetables, the capers, and the olives, and stir, mixing the ingredients together and heating until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Add the agrodolce water and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until almost all of the liquid has evaporated, about 7-8 minutes more.
Add the tomato purée and salt and pepper to taste, and heat the caponata once more, stirring, 3-4 minutes. Salt to taste. (At this point, the caponata may need little or no salt depending on how salty both the olives and the capers are to begin with, although some salt most likely will be in order). Finally, toss and mix in the basil leaves, set aside, and allow the caponata to come to room temperature.
Caponata is one of those dishes best served with some time on it, so store in the refrigerator, covered, at least overnight or for 24 hours. It will keep for a week or more if desired. To serve, bring to room temperature.
You may reach Bill St John at [email protected]