Years ago, I first encountered "caponata" at the Palazzo del Maggiore (now: Agricamping Il Sogno*). Inigo taught me there the technique of first frying the vegetables in olive oil, simultaneously creating a sweet and sour sauce, and then letting all the flavors infuse. It's quite a task, but the result is so delicious that I would eat it every day!
Before I share the recipe with you, let's delve into a bit of history. We now always associate Caponata with Sicily, but originally, it is a more general seafaring dish. The story goes that sailors bought the cooked vegetables in special "caupona" taverns. Onboard, they mixed the vegetables with sugar and vinegar and consumed them. However, with the addition of vinegar, it became naturally more preservable, so they often stocked larger quantities of vegetables to preserve them in this way. Somewhere, I read that ship's biscuit was also added to make it even more nutritious. You can still see this combination of sweet and sour vegetables and a form of bread/biscuit in dishes in other ports like Livorno and Genoa. However, it has disappeared from the most famous Sicilian version.
You might also come across the term "Ca(u)ponatina," which is a more refined version of Caponata with finely cut vegetables. Both versions can be enhanced with fish, lobster, or shellfish stewed in at the end or finished with bottarga (dried roe) and/or finely grated hard-boiled eggs.
Now, time for the recipe! I'll give you my basic version, but feel free to vary it a bit. Recently, I added zucchini and grilled peppers for a garden version (see photo), and we thoroughly enjoyed it.
For about 4 people:
750 grams of eggplants
olive oil for frying
about half a stalk of celery (preferably the inner stalks)
1 dl of olive oil
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 can of tomatoes, without the juice, finely chopped
freshly ground black pepper
6 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
4 tablespoons capers
50 grams green olives
Cut the eggplants into 1 cm cubes. Heat a layer of about 2.5 cm of olive oil in a frying pan. Place a layer of eggplant cubes and fry them until golden brown on all sides. Let them drain on kitchen paper and sprinkle them with salt. Repeat this process with the rest of the eggplant, and do the same with the celery (watch out, it splatters!).
Meanwhile, heat 1 dl of olive oil in a large saucepan. Sauté the onion slices in it until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and let them simmer for about 15 minutes. Stir occasionally and season with salt and pepper.
While the sauce simmers, heat the vinegar with sugar in a small saucepan. Add the capers and olives and let them stand over low heat for a while. Pour the contents of the saucepan into the tomato/onion sauce and let it simmer for another 5 minutes.
Add the vegetables to the sauce and let it all simmer gently for 20 minutes, so that all the flavors are well released and blend together.
I personally prefer to eat Caponata lukewarm or at room temperature, but it can also be served cold. It easily keeps in the refrigerator for 5 or 6 days. But it usually doesn't last that long. Enjoy your meal!