Caponata— a medley of eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, olives, raisins, garlic, onion, and capers— has long been a favorite in the Sicilian communities of New England. Usually spread on crostini and served at room-temperature as an appetizer, caponata is equally delicious as a side dish or even as a condimento over short pasta.
At first glance, all the caponata components appear to be quintessentially Mediterranean. However, that’s not the whole story. Some claim caponata is an ancient dish, that its agro-dolce (sweet and sour) combination of vinegar and raisins pegs it as Roman or medieval. Many give the peripatetic Arabs a nod, not only for introducing the Southeast Asian eggplant around the Mediterranean, but also for mixing sweet with savory, a Persian tradition which Arabs brought to the Sicilian melting-pot. However, New World peppers (Capsicum sp.) as well as another tart-sweet ingredient, the tomato, weren’t widely consumed in southern Italy until the 18th century. Thus, caponata, as we make it today, seems to have fairly recent origins, though it boasts botanical ancestry that reaches from Central America to Indochina. But no matter where it’s made, we deem caponata a hybrid, and thus, “Almost Italian.”
Our investigation of the word “caponata” has lead us to think that the “capon—” of caponata has the same origin as the “cappon” of the luxurious northern Italian Cappon Magro, in which “cappon” proclaims that, even if the dish is meatless, it offers rich flavors. Both preparations seem to take their names from the verb caponare, which means “to neuter.”
In Volume I of our book, Almost Italian, we emphasized how infrequently most Old World Italians consumed poultry. However, one bird, the fattened capon (a neutered rooster), did star in the holiday feasts of the wealthy. Genoese bankers and shipping magnates enjoyed their grain-fed, barnyard fowl while families whose protein was at the mercy and whims of the sea also called their holiday catch, with more than a little tongue-in-cheek, “cappon.” Today, Ligurians proudly serve their elaborate seafood and vegetable salad known as Cappon Magro, which translates as “Lean Capon” an oxymoron that exemplifies Italian gastronomic humor.
In times and places where most who could afford to eat meat invariably would, a main dish without flesh could be considered lacking. Fortunately, necessity and wishful thinking have inspired scores of delectable Mediterranean main dishes based on “meaty” eggplant.
In the interest of leaving nothing, meaty or not, for the omnivorous raccoons, our favorite aunt recently plucked every last pepper and eggplant from her Cape Cod garden. It was a clear mandate for caponata, which we served as a main dish, over pasta.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon peperoncino(crushed red pepper flakes)
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground plack pepper
4 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1 bay leaf
1 medium onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 1/4 pounds eggplant (1 large or assorted smaller fruits), cut into 1-inch cubes
2 medium bell peppers, cored and cut into 3/4-inch chunks
2 stalks celery, thinly sliced
1/4 pound green olives, pits removed
3 tablespoons capers, drained
1 Cup Italian plum tomatoes, roughly chopped*
1/4 Cup red wine vinegar
1/2 Cup seedless raisins
2 tablespoons flat-leaf Italian parsley, finely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh spearmint, finely chopped
*You may use either canned or fresh plum tomatoes
Extra virgin olive oil, to drizzle
More chopped parsley and mint, to taste
In a large sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the peperoncino, freshly ground black pepper, garlic, bay leaf, and onions. Cook, stirring often, until the onions have wilted.
Add the eggplant, bell peppers, and celery and stir to coat with the oil. Season with salt and cover. Sweat the vegetables for 5 – 6 minutes, until the eggplant has softened slightly.
Add the olives, capers, tomatoes and 3 tablespoons of the parsley. Stir to combine and reduce the heat to medium-low. Partially cover the pan and simmer for approximately 15 minutes. There should be enough liquid from the vegetables to keep the mixture from sticking; if necessary, add a couple of tablespoons of water.
Uncover the pan and stir in the vinegar and raisins. Cover the pan completely, turn the heat to low, and cook for approximately 15 minutes more, or until the vegetables are thoroughly softened, but still separate and intact, not mushy.
Turn off the heat and uncover the pan to allow the caponata to cool. When it is lukewarm, remove the bay leaf and stir in the remaining parsley and fresh mint. Taste for salt.
Makes 5-6 cups of caponata.
To serve as a spread or side dish:
Drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil and garnish with additional chopped mint and parsley.
To serve tossed with pasta:
Allow 1/2 to 3/4 cup of caponata for each serving of short pasta. Chunky caponata complements gemelli, penne, ziti, or our choice— farfalle (also known as bow-ties). Enjoy Pasta con Caponata warm or at room temperature. Finish each portion with a drizzle of flavorful oil and a sprinkling of fresh herbs.