Sicilian caponata is an aromatic vegetable dish that combines sweet and sour ingredients. Learn how to make it and serve it in countless ways!
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When I traveled to Sicily for the first time 10 years ago, caponata is one of the first traditional dishes I tasted. Although I ate countless other magnificent dishes through the trip, caponata remained the recipe I most looked forward to making at home. You see, before I tasted caponata, I thought I didn’t like eggplant, but the creamy, chunky, sweet and sour creation that is Sicilian caponata completely changed my mind.
Caponata is a Sicilian sweet and sour version of ratatouille. It is usually made with eggplant and tomatoes and seasoned with celery, raisins, olives, and capers. The combination of sweet and sour ingredients creates agrodolce, a traditional sauce of Italian cuisine. Agrodolce is made by simmering sweet and sour ingredients together. Balance is essential to achieve the best agrodolce flavor: in Sicilian Caponata, sweetness comes from the raisins and a bit of sugar, and the sourness from the vinegar, capers, olives, and a teaspoon of cocoa powder. Yes! Cocoa powder plays an essential role in caponata, but not to worry: the dish doesn’t taste like chocolate in the least. Cocoa deepens the overall flavor of caponata and gives it an intriguing earthy aroma.
In caponata, eggplant is diced then fried in oil, which both concentrates the flavor of the vegetable and gives it a lovely, creamy texture. If you can find smaller eggplants for your Sicilian caponata, go for it: their flavor is sweeter and the skin is thinner, which makes the eggplant indiscernible in the caponata. But most months of the year, the only variety of eggplant I can find where I live is the large, deep purple one, and it works perfectly fine. If you dice it finely and fry it properly, the flavor and texture of that eggplant variety will be just as enjoyable.
The caponata I enjoyed in Sicily featured chopped octopus, which made it heartier and more luxurious. Octopus is a traditional way to garnish caponata in Palermo, Sicily’s capital. It is said that hundreds of years ago, the dish was served to royalty and was primarily made with a fish called the “capone” (hence the name). The dish was later adopted by the people, who replaced the expensive fish with more affordable eggplant. You can also top caponata with chopped hard-boiled eggs, sardines, grilled shrimp, and even lobster, or serve it with grilled fish. More typically, though, it is served cold as an antipasto (appetizer) on grilled bread.
The flavor of Sicilian caponata develops as it rests, so it’s best to make it at least one day in advance and refrigerate it overnight. After resting, the texture of Sicilian caponata will be thick, rich, and creamy, like that of a chutney. The flavor keeps getting better as it ages, and you can easily keep caponata refrigerated for a week.
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