Caponata is the epitome of summer sunshine. Italian summer sunshine, to be precise. A thick cooked-down mulch of all that is best from the summer garden (or market), this colourful Sicilian vegetable stew is a frequent gracer of the food to glow table during summer months. Or, if we are lucky, as a lap-based lunch while sitting in the garden, fending off marauding hens and lap-loving cats. It’s a hard life we have here *tiny violins playing*… Unfortunately, as I write, the rain is tap-dancing on the roof. But luckily for me – and you too – this is an adaptable recipe, as delicious warm overtop hot pasta and with a side of stir-fried chard, as it is cool and smoodged onto fire-grilled ciabatta slices, a la bruschetta. I am kind of halfway-house today with a heaped serving spoon (well ladle really – remember, I’m greedy) of caponata nestled up against some fresh bread, the sweet and sour juices soaking up nicely. What you don’t see is the the chunk of aged Parmesan I have been gnawing on for a protein fix.
Caponata is so adaptable that it can be used in almost countless ways: as a tart filling, as the base of an Italian-style fish and seafood stew, over soft steaming polenta, in little puff pastry cups for a retro appetiser, in lasagne, melanzane parmigiana, as a side to simple roast chicken or grilled fish, on pizza or pitta, and stirred into cooked grains along with lentils for a fabulous brown bag lunch. And, I haven’t tried this, but I imagine it would be the delicious basil-spiked centre for gorgeously dinky arancini. Miss R loves arancini so I might just have to save some for this very purpose.
For my family I would stoke up the griddle pan but for just me I am happy with a piece of bread from a loaf procured at my post office (!). Just to big up my local post office for a wee sec: it is teeny tiny, only two serving windows’ worth of space, but it also manages to shoehorn in a gourmet food store. What a community asset it is too. Among the locally produced chocolates, jams, honey, oatcakes and biscuits that clamber on wooden shelves up to the ceiling, Barnton Fine Foods stocks the most delightful bread from Breadshare. This Scottish Borders-based, not-for-profit bread-making cooperative produces truly superlative ‘proper’ bread. My favourite is the olive and pumpkin seed one, but they always run out before I get there these days. So, I have made due with a piece cut from a lovely but somewhat inferior loaf from Waitrose. Barnton Fine Foods has me spoiled. *cue more violins*
As for the caponata, I have cooked it in stages to keep the celery with some bite and for the capers to still pop in the mouth rather than wilt into the final dish. But do add it all in at once if you like, the taste will always be terrific. How can it not be with such amazing summer ingredients?
What is your favourite adaptable go-to summer recipe?
This Sicilian-Arabic compote of vegetables is traditionally served as a starter, but I think it is much more versatile than that: on bruschetta (grilled Italian bread slices, to you and me), on griddled polenta cakes, with pasta, in a jacket potato, as a side with plainly grilled chicken or fish. I’m sure you can think of other uses for this wonderfully sweet sour dish. During the summer months, when aubergines and tomatoes are at their sunny, gorgeous-hued best, we have this once a week in a variety of permutations, sometimes adding in a tin or two of butter beans for protein. If at all possible allow this melange to ‘develop’ overnight. This really is worth the effort and attention.
2 medium sized aubergines/eggplants
800g (1 lb 12 0z) of peeled ripe tomatoes (although I sometimes use 2 tins of best quality – Cirio brand – tomatoes)
500ml (18 oz) passatta (sieved tomato sauce)
3 celery stalks
2 medium red onions
5 garlic cloves
150g (5 ½ oz) of pitted large green olives
3 heaped tbsps capers (if salted soak in water and drain to remove salt)
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for serving
3 tbsp sherry or red wine vinegar
2 tbsps muscovado/dark brown sugar sugar (more to taste)
a handful of basil leaves, shredded
Cut the aubergines/eggplants into chunks about one inch or two centimetres square. (You may prefer slightly larger or smaller pieces.) Do not peel. Cook these by steaming covered in a large pot until completely cooked but firm. (Don’t boil them.) Drain well and set aside. OR, sometimes I chop them into cubes and toss them in a little olive oil and roast them for 15 minutes at 200C/400F.
Chop the tomatoes into small pieces or a thick pulp, without discarding the juice or seeds. Chop the onions into thin slices and mince the garlic. Cut the celery stalks into pieces about 2 cm inch long. Halve the olives. In a large saucepan, slowly sauté the onions, garlic and celery pieces in the olive oil. The celery should be lightly cooked, firm but not raw. Add the tomatoes and the passata and bring the mixture to a boil, then simmer for a few minutes until the sauce changes colour to a lighter red. At this point, simmer over low heat for another 4-6 minutes. Add the aubergine/eggplants, olives and capers to the mixture. Also add the vinegar, sugar and basil. Stir gently and allow to simmer covered (steaming) for about 30 minutes over a low heat until mixture thickens but doesn’t burn; stir occasionally. Remove from heat and allow to cool for a few minutes before checking and maybe adjusting the flavour (more sugar, vinegar). Then chill for at least three hours before serving at room temperature. Serves 6-8
Need more calories? Add two extra tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil when you add the vinegar and sugar OR drizzle the served the portion with extra virgin olive oil and top with a sprinkle of crumbled feta or goats’ cheese.
N. B. This is a fairly salty dish because of the olives and capers so perhaps don’t add salt to whatever you are having with it – be kind to your kidneys!