…Or How I learned to appreciate the infinite love of Sicilians for eggplant.
The first time I had eggplant was in the form of caponata. I was probably around 9 or 10 when Mom handed me the tiniest can I had ever seen. It was filled with something called Caponata. One turn of the can opener revealed a strange soft mixture of eggplant, celery, olives and capers that was simultaneously sweet and sour. I loved it, ate it all and got yelled at because I didn’t share. Which maybe set me up for appreciating the unbounded embrace of the eggplant in Sicilian cuisine. I remember stepping into a hole in the wall in Taormina sometime during the 80s and finding an antipasti table with fifteen different eggplant dishes. So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised on my recent trip to Pantelleria that we were served the famed Sicilian dish Caponata at every meal.
As in the rest of Sicily the eggplant dish is presented as variations on a theme. In six days we had twelve caponate, each one different from the other.
They were served warm or at room temperature, swimming in oil and misted with just enough. The eggplant had been peeled or the peel left on; it was cut into large chunks and cut into small dice. Celery was used abundantly or hardly at all. Olives were added as a food group or a tiny condiment. Maybe there were roasted or fried sweet peppers, but maybe not. The saltiness of the whole varied from get the blood pressure cuff to perfectly balanced. Capers were always there but could be small, medium or super huge in size. One variation wasn’t sweet at all and there was argument at the table if it could even be called caponata without sweet to balance the sour. All were topped by toasted breadcrumbs or almonds.
My favorite version was made by Chef Gianni Busetta of La Nicchia. It was a Caponata made simply out of large peeled chunks of eggplant, enough celery to perceive the fresh green flavor, enough onions for natural sweetness, a hit of tomato for color and taste, all perfectly balanced between sweet and sour. It was served warm and topped with chopped toasted almonds.
Warm Caponata with Toasted Almonds from La Nicchia Restaurant in Pantelleria
adapted from La Cucina di Pantelleria by Gianni Busetta
4 eggplants, peeled and cut into 2-3” chunks (Yes, 4, really. Once salted they will diminish in volume)
1 medium onion, peeled and diced
3 celery stalks, washed, trimmed and sliced (not too thin)
1 cup water
Olive oil for frying
¼ cup tomato sauce and/or handful of cherry tomatoes cut in half
¼ cup black and/or green olives or more to taste
3 tablespoons sugar
1-2 tablespoons capers (preferably in salt, salt washed off)
¼ cup chopped toasted almonds
Toss eggplant with salt and put in colander to drain with weight on top for at least an hour. Meanwhile cut the onion and celery and start them cooking.
Place celery and onion in sauté pan with a drizzle of oil and the cup of water and a pinch of salt. Cover and bring to a boil. Remove cover and lower heat so that mixture simmers. You want the water to help break down and soften the celery and onion. As it evaporates off you will end up frying the vegetables until soft and barely golden. Add the tomato sauce and or cherry tomatoes, the olives, capers and sugar and simmer to meld the flavors and dissolve the sugar. About 15 minutes. Set aside in bowl.
After eggplant has been draining for an hour rinse off the salt and squeeze the eggplant dry. You might want to roll it up in a kitchen towel to remove excess liquid. Fry the eggplant in sufficient oil so that it barely floats until golden and tender. Drain and mix together with the celery-onion mixture. Taste and adjust sugar and salt to taste. Serve warm topped with toasted almonds.