As Matthew Fort explains in his bookabout Sicily, Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons: “Sicilian cooking embraces contrast, discord … the dishes are as bold and baroque as any flamboyant building” – and this sweet and sour aubergine stew is a textbook example. But according to the River Cafe, there are as many recipes “as there are cooks in Sicily”… so where to start?
Prep 20 min, plus salting time
Cook 1 hr 20 min
1 large aubergine (about 500g)
1 large courgette
1 large red onion
2 celery sticks
150g ripe tomatoes, diced
40g green olives
1 tbsp dark chocolate (optional)
Vegetable or sunflower oil, to fry
3 tbsp olive oil
1½ tsp chilli flakes (optional)
40g sultanas or raisins
1 tbsp sugar
100ml red-wine vinegar
40g almonds or pine nuts (optional)
Small bunch of mint (or parsley, if preferred)
1 Select your vegetables
Take the vegetables I’ve used as a guide rather than an order. Aubergine is always the mainstay of a caponata, but you can replace the courgette with more aubergine, peppers or fennel if that takes your fancy – fry the latter two with the onion and celery until soft rather than salting with the aubergine.
2 Tasting note
If you happen to have a glut of ripe tomatoes, you can replace the passata with those whizzed into a puree – but as we’re in Britain, I’ve played it safe, and added some extra sugar to boost the sweetness. If you’re not a fan of dried fruit or chocolate in savoury contexts, you can leave either out without spoiling the dish.
3 Dice and salt the big veg
Cut the aubergine and courgette into roughly 2cm dice. Though salting isn’t absolutely necessary if you’re watching your intake, it will add to the seasoning of the dish so I think it’s worthwhile. Keeping the vegetables separate, sprinkle them lightly with salt, then put them in a colander in t sink, trying to keep them in two distinct layers, and leave for at least 30 minutes.
4 Peel and chop the rest
Meanwhile, peel and thinly slice the onion (you can use a yellow onion if you prefer), cut the celery into roughly 2cm dice and roughly chop the tomatoes, keeping the last separate for now.
Remove the stones from the olives if necessary, and cut the flesh into quarters. Grate the chocolate.
5 Pat dry
Pat the aubergines and courgettes dry with kitchen paper, still keeping them separate. Put a wide, deep pan a third full of vegetable oil over a high heat until the oil reaches 190C on a cooking thermometer, or until a breadcrumb dropped in browns immediately (or use a deep fat fryer, if you have one).
6 Fry the aubergine
Fry the aubergine and then the courgette until golden, being careful not to overcrowd the pan – they’ll take slightly different times, which is why it’s useful to keep them separate – and then drain them on kitchen paper. Be sure to allow the oil time to come back up to temperature between batches or the vegetables will end up greasy.
7 Make the base
Pour the olive oil into a large pan for which you have a lid and place on a medium-low heat.
Once hot, fry the onion and celery with a pinch of salt until they begin to colour, then stir in the chilli flakes, if using. Fry for another minute, add the diced tomatoes, and leave to bubble away for another two.
8 Simmer for an hour
Stir in the capers, olives, sultanas, sugar, passata, vinegar and grated chocolate and bring the pan to the boil, then add the fried aubergines and courgettes.
Turn the heat right down, cover and simmer gently for an hour, checking regularly towards the end of this time and adding a splash of water if it seems to be drying out.
9 Cool and garnish
Take off the heat and allow to cool to room temperature, then check the seasoning and adjust if necessary. Meanwhile, toast the almonds in a dry frying pan and pick the leaves from the mint and roughly chop them.
Serve the caponata at room temperature or warm, rather than hot, with both scattered on top.