Caponata at Every Meal

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Evan’s Caponata (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

…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.