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Sicilian Caponata

Caponata, an iconic antipasto of Sicily, has Arabic origins, as evidenced by its use of eggplant, almonds and sweet-and-sour seasoning. Such influences are not uncommon in Sicily, once a crossroads of many cultures. This is a good make-ahead dish for entertaining, as the flavors improve if allowed to meld overnight. Although traditionally served at room temperature, it can also be served warm as a side dish to grilled fish or poultry.

Ingredients:

  • Olive or canola oil for frying  
  • 2 eggplants, about 1 lb. each, trimmed and cut into 1-inch cubes 
  • 2 red or yellow bell peppers, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch squares 
  • 2 large yellow onions, cut into 1/2-inch cubes 
  • 3 tender inner celery stalks, sliced 
  • 3 ripe tomatoes, seeded and chopped 
  • 1 cup chopped pitted green olives 
  • 1/3 cup raisins 
  • 2 Tbs. capers, rinsed and drained 
  • 2 Tbs. sugar 
  • 2 Tbs. red wine vinegar 
  • Sea salt, to taste 
  • 1/4 cup sliced almonds, toasted 
  • Crusty Italian bread or focaccia for serving 

Directions:

Pour the olive oil to a depth of 1/2 inch into a deep, heavy fry pan and place over medium heat until hot. The oil is ready when an eggplant cube dropped into it sizzles on impact. Line a large platter or tray with paper towels and set it next to the stove.

Working in batches, carefully arrange the eggplant cubes in the pan in a single layer, being careful not to crowd them. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant is tender and browned, 7 to 8 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to the prepared platter. Repeat with the remaining eggplant.

When all of the eggplant has been cooked, fry the bell peppers in the same way until tender and lightly browned, 4 to 6 minutes, and then drain on paper towels as well. Finally, fry the onions and celery together in the same way until tender and golden, 7 to 8 minutes, and drain.

In a large saucepan over low heat, combine the tomatoes, olives, raisins, capers, sugar and vinegar. Stir well and add the fried vegetables and a pinch of salt. Cover partially and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture thickens, about 20 minutes. Add a little water if the mixture begins to dry out. Remove from the heat, transfer to a serving dish and let cool to room temperature. If time permits, cover and refrigerate overnight to allow the flavors to marry; bring to room temperature before serving.

Just before serving, sprinkle the toasted almonds over the top. Serve with slices of crusty bread or focaccia. Serves 8 to 10.

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Italian by Michele Scicolone (Oxmoor House, 2007).