Caponata Siciliana

When I lived in London, I worked a few doors away from Antonio Carluccio’s Covent Garden delicatessen and restaurant. Between that delicatessen and the MAC cosmetics shop, I usually managed to relieve myself of most of my salary by the end of the month with astonishing ease. It is depressing to realise that all you’ve got to show for having edited half a book is four tubes of pink-coloured whale fat, a pot of something sparkly, a small bag of pine nuts and a stomach full of aubergines that somebody else has cooked.

Happy day. I now live in a house which is essentially in the middle of a field, four miles from the nearest shop. I work from home these days, being a freelance, so I’m not tempted to don wellies and hike out to the shops in my lunch hour. This means that I make my own caponata and get to spend more on sparkly things at the weekends.

Caponata is a Sicilian vegetable dish, and it’s brilliantly flexible; you can use it as a side dish, a salad, a kind of saucy base for cooked meat; it is good hot, cold from the fridge or (my favourite) at room temperature. It’s typical of Sicily in its Arab-influenced agrodolce, or sour/sweet flavouring, and is spiked with savoury olives, capers and pine nuts.

This is very similar to the caponata from Carluccio’s (which they used to serve in a gorgeously oily foccacia sandwich with a slice of Fontina cheese). It’s another good recipe for those with a glut of tomatoes – I used a sugo (tomato puree) I’d cooked and bottled last year. Those without their own can buy good sugo at an Italian delicatessen (I recommend Balzano’s in Cambridge for locals) – Sainsbury’s also carry a good, own-brand Italian sugo for a short period every summer. To make your own, just simmer whole tomatoes in a pan with a little butter, salt and sugar (no water) until the skins are bursting, then strain the lot through a sieve.

To make a large bowl of Caponata, sufficient for a side-dish for six, you’ll need:

4 large aubergines (eggplants)
2 large onions
Inner leaves and stalks of a large celery plant
400g Sugo (see above)
1 small handful salted nonpareil capers, rinsed well
1 small handful chopped black olives (stoned)
1 large handful pine nuts
1 large handful basil, plus more to garnish
1 tablespoon caster sugar
60ml sherry vinegar (use white wine vinegar if you can’t get sherry)
Salt, pepper
Olive oil

Chop the aubergines into even dice. Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large, thick-bottomed pan until it starts to give off its fragrance and tip the aubergines in. Fry, keeping everything on the move, until the aubergines are soft and turning brown. Remove them to a bowl.

Dice the onions roughly and fry them in some more oil in the same pan until soft. Add the chopped celery heart and stalks, the pine nuts, capers, olives and sugo, and stir until the celery is tender – about five minutes. (Make sure you don’t add too much sugo; this should be moist, not wet.) Add the cooked aubergines and shredded basil to the pan and cook, stirring gently, for another ten minutes. Add the vinegar and sugar, cook for another five minutes to take the edge off the vinegar, and season with nutmeg, salt and pepper.

Serve immediately or leave to cool. Mine is currently on the kitchen table, cooling for Fontina sandwiches later this evening. My stomach is growling.

12 Replies to “Caponata Siciliana”

  1. Apparently the original Sicilian recipes use green olives.I wonder if it makes a much difference? Oddly enough Elizabeth David suggested serving half quantities as it she must have considered it would not suit English tastes.How times have changed.

  2. Hello Mummy! I’m not sure; the caponata at Carluccio’s uses black ones,as have many others I’ve eaten (I think the River Cafe one does too). Having said that, you’re quite right; Sicilian olives are the big green fellas. You’ll often find them walloped before marinading so the hard flesh cracks, allowing them to take up the marinade more easily.

  3. Only a couple of hours ago, I was groaning with pleasure at Carluccio’s Caffé in Richmond; leaving until last the caponata component of their Antipasto Verdure. I have returned home and am slavering with anticipation at making your version. Thank goodness for Italian food, for ‘la cucina accurata’, for Signor Carluccio himself, for Valentina Harris, Anna del Conte, ‘The Silver Spoon’, and now you!

  4. Thank you for this! Have just come back from Carluccio’s and had the gorgeous Caponata. I thought I’d google a recipe and found yours – I can’t wait to try it!

  5. I have just returned from a fantastic evening at Kenwood having dined on a Carluccio’s picnic while listening to the music. The caponata was delicious and, like the previous comment, I googled it to see if I could find a recipe. I can’t wait to have a go at this recipe. Thanks for posting the recipe.

  6. Oh dear! I too have eaten Antipasti Verdure at Carliccio’s (Bluewater) this week, bought some in the deli, then needed more, so Googled the recipe and found this!

    I’m going to make pasties with mine; shortcrust pastry, fontina and caponata – my daughter thinks that Carluccio’s offered this in the cafes a while ago.

    Siren’s Cry xx

  7. I made a Maltese version of this and always cooked each vegetable separately before assembling at the end. I never used celery either, just aubergine, tomatoes, courgettes and lots of olives

  8. I always thought SUGO was simply sauce, as in spagetti sugo and CONSERVA was like tomato puree.
    Might be a regional difference in words.
    My understanding is from the south, near Cassino.

  9. Hi Mike

    My understanding (which I came to from Tuscany, so perhaps it is regional) is that sugo does indeed mean sauce – but it’s understood to mean a standard tomato-only sauce when it’s not qualified. Don’t you hate regional differences? 🙂

  10. I too bought some of this from Carluccios in Stratford and am keen to make it at home. I have also found a very similar recipe using runner beans rather than aubergine. We have a glut of these and the resulting dish can also be eaten cold…..brilliant!

  11. Hi,
    Firstly, I’m Sicilian.
    I like your recipe and eager to try it.
    Caponata is one of my favorite dishes and I’ve found the best is when the ingredients have been cooked seperately, combined and then left to mature for at least a week. A liberal amount of olive oil should always be used ( a bit like a good curry ).
    My mother always adds a little Bicarbonate of Soda to her version.
    Apparantely it reduces the acidity of the tomatoes. I have to admits mine never seems to taste as good as mamma’s. I don’t think she’s told me all her secrets yet !

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