Sunday, April 9, 2017


Caponata is a Sicilian version of ratatouille.  Sicily was ruled by the House of Bourbon at various times during the 1700s-1800s and the ultimate status symbol for an upper-class Sicilian was to have a French-trained chef. There are many influences in Sicilian food. In the east, where my great-grandparents were from, the food is not too different from the southern Italian mainland which is only a couple of miles across the Strait of Messina, but there was a Greek influence. Sicilian pizza is traditionally thick and rectangular like a flatbread and features aromatic sausage heavy on the fennel seeds. I'd eaten a lot of rectangular sausage pizzas before I ever saw a round one with pepperoni.

The ancient peasant foods of Sicily are the fish dishes and the many creative ways to use cheap vegetables like "cardoony" that we almost consider weeds today. Granita, gelato and a lot of the sweets, especially the ones with nuts and candied fruit, are from the times of Arab rule. The Arab influence is stronger in the west, towards Palermo. When potatoes and tomatoes came from the New World, they were incorporated immediately.  The Sicilian signature is contrasting combinations like sweet-and-sour, or even sweet-and-bitter, that can be hard to get used to. There's a salad of oranges and onions that I like but nobody else in my house can stand, so we never have it.

Caponata is very close to ratatouille but the Sicilian influence creeps in in the form of green olives and a little sugar. This recipe is from my great aunt Mary who was 100% Sicilian, born just a few years after her folks came to America. She died in 2013 at 94.

This is a really old picture of Aunt Mary - maybe from 1935 or so. My parents rented a house she owned when they were first married - we may have been living there when I was born, but I'm not sure.

2 Tbsp. olive oil [Aunt Mary didn't have to say this in her time, but avoid the really cheap olive oils that are out there today. Some of that stuff I bet is just canola with green dye in it. You can get good California or Italian olive oils for less than $10 a pint.]
Medium yellow onion sliced thinly
2 stalks celery sliced thinly [Non-classical suggestion: celery leaves add great flavor to a lot of things so you might chop up a few and put them in too.]
A big eggplant, diced, with the skin left on. [Try to get a young, shiny, solid-feeling, dense eggplant - they have fewer seeds and a milder taste. I got a really good one today - probably from Mexico this time of year. Some people will tell you that male eggplants have fewer seeds and can be identified by a certain shape of the end, but this is not true. Eggplants don't have a gender.]
8 oz can tomato sauce
14 oz can diced tomatoes, drained
2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1-2 tsp. sugar
1/2 cup pitted green olives. [You can use a Sicilian olive called a castelveltrano, or just regular Spanish green olives]
2 Tbsp. capers

Saute the celery and onion in the oil about 5 minutes, until softened. Add the eggplant and saute another 2 minutes. Add the tomato sauce and tomatoes and let simmer under low-med heat, covered, for about 10 minutes. Add the vinegar, one tsp of sugar, the olives and capers, and let simmer another 10 minutes. The fussy cooking times have to do with getting the texture of the different ingredients right. Let cool and add salt, pepper and a little more sugar if you want, to taste. Then store it cold, overnight if you can. You would normally eat it at room temperature, as a starter or on bread, but it's OK to warm it a little.

Another famous Sicilian recipe is braciole ("brazhool" in dialect.) I'll do that one in a future post, but it's so typically Sicilian, it's good illustration of what I wrote above. In Sicily (and much of Italy for that matter) most people could afford very little meat, and what there was, was bad.  So they took a tough old piece of beef, sliced it thin, and rolled and stuffed it with chopped-up boiled egg, salami, cheese, and - yes - raisins.  You would eat it like a meatball or sausage link, with spaghetti. A couple hours simmering in sauce and it tastes like high-class food.