26 January 2012

AUNTIE PASTA: There's Something About ...

SARONNO, Italy - There is something about the sunny flavors in caponata that conjure up thought of sun and sea and Sicily. While the dish gets its name from one of its ingredients, capers, its main ingredient is eggplant (aubergines). Maybe the dish should be called melanzatta instead.
 Sicilian Caponata

Caponata is another example of a Sicilian dish whose origins lie in the Middle East. Like much of Sicily’s cuisine, caponata was introduced to the island by the Arabs. They ruled Sicily from the year 827 to 1061 and through their highly effective irrigation techniques, they brought water to the cities and the fields, a crucial element to farming in this arid land. In Palermo you can still see the subterranean waterways known as ‘qanats’. 

Street Market, Palermo, Sicily
They ruled Sicily for a little more than two centuries but their influence was nothing short of monumental. Under their administration, the island's population doubled as dozens of towns were founded and cities repopulated. By introducing irrigation techniques to the island, they were able to totally change what the Sicilians grew and ate. It was the Arabs who brought sugar cane, cotton, eggplant, dates, oranges and other citrus fruits to Sicily. And while you see their influence in many Sicilian recipes, more significantly, they changed Sicilian society itself. To this day, many social attitudes found in Sicily are direct decedents of the Arabs who ruled a thousand years ago.  
Eggplant on the Vine
There are a number of caponata recipes including those that call for artichokes or sweet peppers. But regardless of which recipe you use, the primary ingredient is eggplant, followed by celery, green olives, tomatoes (a modern addition), onions, capers, virgin olive oil, vinegar and sugar. The ingredients must be prepared carefully. The celery, for example, should not be overcooked and must remain firm. The cured or salted capers must be thoroughly rinsed. The eggplant may be slightly steamed and then saut├ęd, though some purists prefer frying.

Here's the basic recipe.

Ingredients: 8 medium size aubergines (eggplants), 200 grams of peeled mature tomatoes, 2 medium size sweet white or yellow onions, the heart of a large celery, 200 grams of pitted large cured firm green olives, 200 grams of capers (if salted soak in water and drain to remove salt), extra virgin olive oil, white vinegar, sugar, salt.

Preparation: Cut the unpeeled eggplants into chunks of about one inch (or two centimeter squares). This is not a “written in stone” recipe, so feel free to make adjustments. Cook the cubed eggplant by steaming it in a large, covered pot until completely cooked, but still firm. (Don't boil them.) Drain well and set aside. 

Chop the tomatoes into small pieces or a thick pulp, without discarding the juice or seeds. Chop the onions into medium pieces or thin slices. Cut the celery stalks into pieces about one inch long. Discard leaves. (It’s really best to cut eggplant, tomato and celery in more or less the same sizes, it makes it easier to eat). Cut the olives in half. 

In a large pan, saute the onions and celery pieces in olive oil. The celery should be lightly cooked, firm but not raw. Add the tomato pulp and bring the mixture to a boil, then simmer for a few minutes until the sauce changes color to a lighter red. At this point, simmer over low heat for another 4-6 minutes. Add the eggplants, olives and capers to the mixture. Also add a few tablespoons each of olive oil, vinegar and sugar. Stir gently and allow to simmer covered (steaming) for about five minutes over medium-low heat until mixture thickens but doesn't burn. 

Remove from heat and allow to cool. Salt to taste. Then chill for at least four hours before serving.

Caponata is also good as a vegetarian meal served over rice or couscous. 

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