Caponata Autunnale (Sicilian Autumn Caponata)
Updated: Oct 12, 2021
Caponata is one of Sicily's most iconic dishes, and vegetarian too. As with many of our local dishes, numerous...maybe countless local variants exist and its origins are disputed.
In its classic form the main ingredient is deep fried cubed aubergines and is particularly popular during summer. Other vegetables are added, particularly tomato sauce, celery, olives, and capers. These are combined with another Sicilian trademark ingredient - almonds - particularly in the western part of the island; while in the east, we prefer to use pine nuts.
The name of the dish, Caponata, seems to derive from the word "capone" (not in any way related to Al Capone!). Capone is a fish similar to tuna that is common to our Mediterranean see. According to some sources, it was common for fishermen's wives to prepare bread and capone for their husbands before they went at sea. Those who could not afford fish, would replace capone with aubergines for their somewhat similar texture.
Seasonal Versions of Caponata
Caponata, in its many versions, is characterised by an agrodolce (sweet and sour) sauce, obtained by the addition of vinegar (another ingredient we use a lot in our cuisine) and sugar.
As I've said many times before, one of the beautiful things about Sicily is that we still very much eat only what's in season. Most of the produce you get in the island is sourced locally and as such certain vegetables are only available at certain times of the year.
As a result, you'll often find some recipes being adapted, based on what's in season and change throughout the year. Caponata is one such example.
Some of the ingredients you may find in caponata include carrots, bell peppers, potatoes, cauliflower, pumpkin. What makes the dish a "caponata" per-se is the sweet and sour sauce; and also the way ingredients are cooked - each cubed and fried individually, which makes this dish slightly time-consuming and quite heavy...definitely one you would make on a Sunday or holiday, and not necessarily every day.
In my version, I made the dish slightly lighter by only charring the cauliflower, and then sautéing it with the other ingredients. Another way you could make it lighter is by just adding all ingredients to a baking tray and baking in the oven - it's quite common for people to use this method as well.
You'll also spot an unusual ingredient in this version - cocoa powder! This may sound unusual, but actually cocoa is sometimes used, more as a spice than a baking ingredient, in our savoury preparations in a few of our other dishes.
Ingredients (for 2)
1/2 medium cauliflower cut into 8 equal parts
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp capers
2 cloves garlic, minced finely
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and chopped
1 tbsp tomato concentrate
2 tbsp bitter cocoa powder
1 tsp sugar
150g pitted green olives
Chopped fresh mint and parsley
A handful of toasted pine nuts
3 tbsp red vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
Make a veggie stock using the discarded parts of your veggies - cauliflower leaves and big stem, stalks of parsley, peel of carrots and adding some salt and pepper. Boil until the water has reduced to half and keep aside.
Heat a wide pan and place the cauliflower pieces on without adding any oil. Char on all sides and transfer to a plate. Coat the cauliflower in cocoa powder and a pinch of salt and keep to the side.
In the same pan, heat the oil and add garlic, celery, carrots, capers and olives. Season with salt and pepper and sauté for 2 mins. Next add the sugar dissolved in vinegar and increase the heat for 10 seconds to let the vinegar smell evaporate.
Add the chopped herbs, tomato concentrate and 1 ladle of stock. Stir then arrange the pieces of cauliflower in the pan with the other ingredients. Cover with a lid, reduce the heat and allow to cook without turning the pieces for about 10-15 minutes.
Regularly remove the lid bast the top of the cauliflower with the sauce to make sure it gets nicely coated on top as well. If the sauce dries too much, add more stock, one ladle at a time until you obtain and nicely caramelised, thick and dark sauce coating the veggies.
Word of the Day
(Cauliflower, pronounced ca·vol·fió·re)