Friday, November 18, 2011

Caponata: The Fragrant Essence of the Sicilian Summer

Il Cappero-
the delicate caper flower
I have a lingering memory from my childhood in Sicily of sumptuous  summer vegetables casually resting on my grandmother’s wooden kitchen table, with dappled light streaming across them from the slats of her Persian shutters, opened just a tad to allow in light and keep out the intense afternoon heat of summer.  Late summer’s bounty in Sicily is an artist’s palette of bright purple eggplant, viridian squash,  fire red tomatoes and canary yellow bell peppers.   Outdoors, a sprawling carpet of sweetly scented caper flowers, delicate and white, crowned with a diadem of purple stamen, cover even the most lowly rock of the island. These sublime colors, flavors and fragrances are masterfully preserved  by Sicilian cooks for their families’ enjoyment in the winter months too.  Caponata, which is eaten as a side dish or “contorno,”   captures the splendid flavors of the Sicilian summer perhaps better than any other dish.
The raw ingredients of caponata
Caponata is an ancient recipe and is prepared throughout Sicly with many variations.  Although caponata is sometimes served as a starter, it’s important to note that the “antipasto” or starter, did not have a place in the Sicilian kitchen until very recently.  Southern Italian cuisine is sometimes characterized as  “cucina dei poveri,”  or “poor man’s cuisine,” a term I personally do not care for because it perpetuates an inaccurate stereotype of southern culture. Antipasti, we are told, were not part of Sicily’s gastronomic tradition, because people who labored did not need to have their appetites piqued,  which is the primary purpose of an antipasto.   Whatever the reasons, in the last 20 years or more, it has become fashionable to serve antipasti at meals, and Sicilians have done this largely by adapting dishes that were once used as “contorni” such as caponata.  
Below is the classic recipe for Caponata.

You will need 2 large sauté skillets and the following ingredients:
4 large eggplant, unpeeled, cut into medium cubes , salted and allowed to “sweat”  for at least for 30 minutes
2 red medium onions finely sliced
2 or 3 whole tomatoes parboiled (called “pelati”), peeled, seeded and chopped
2 hearts of celery, washed and coarsely chopped
7 ounces (or 200 grams) green olives packed in brine, pits removed and cut into large  pieces.
5 ounces (or 150 grams) capers packed in salt
1½ T sugar
1 scant cup imported wine vinegar
Salt to taste and olive oil as needed to sauté

A sauté of onion, celery,tomatoes olives and capers

Wash and dry the eggplant and sauté it in a large pan with a generous half cup of a light quality olive oil suitable for cooking.   When done and tender to the bite, set it aside. 
In another large skillet, prepare the sauce. Sauté the onion in a quarter cup of olive oil until it is translucent and add the tomatoes. After a minute or two add the olives, capers, and celery and allow the sauce to cook at a low heat for an additional minute or two.  Do not overcook it as you want the celery to maintain its bite. Add the sautéed eggplant to the sauce and continue cooking, adjusting the salt. Then add the sugar and vinegar, stir and remove it from the heat.  Allow it to cool before serving. It can be refrigerated up to a week or longer, or preserved for the winter using traditional canning methods.

Caponata served on hand painted Italian
majolica from Gumps San Francisco,
a gift from our San Diego friends
Kate Leonard and Richard Forsyth

I’d like to add a word or two about the ingredients. Sicilians prefer to preserve the delicate and aromatic caper berry in salt rather than brine. The salt maintains the true flavor of the berry. Capers packed in salt can now be found in most Italian specialty stores in the United States. If using this kind of caper, be sure to let it soak in cold water for 5 minutes or so to deposit all the salt  and rinse it before cooking. 
I also feel it is important to use a good quality vinegar for this dish. I have experimented with many vinegars to best approach the flavor of caponata made in Sicliy   Although I like the flavor of balsamic vinegar, I feel it is too strong and overpowers the delicate flavors of the dish.  Another disadvantage of balsamic vinegar is that the sauce becomes very dark.  The caponata flavors should be delicate and the colors should be lively.  A good quality imported Italian wine vinegar is best for this dish.  
I suggest you serve the caponata as an antipasto, on a slice or two of crusty bread, or as a contorno to your main entre.   It works especially well with fish and poultry.

Buon appetito and  until next time,
Ciao a presto!

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