Caponata is a classic Sicilian dish made with aubergines as the main ingredient. This sweet and sour vegetable medley is usually served as a side dish or appetizer and is popular in Italian cuisine. Learn How to make this flavourful dish that is loved by many.
About this Recipe
By: Silvana Lanzetta
Sicilian Caponata is undoubtedly one of the most delectable dishes you can try, especially if you’re an aubergine lover like me. The sweet and sour sauce complements the vegetables perfectly, bringing out their natural flavours and textures in a magical way that’s hard to resist.
Personally, I prefer serving Caponata with fresella, a hard rusk biscuit that’s typical of Southern Italy. When it’s moistened with warm water before serving, it creates the perfect canvas for this salad. However, if fresella is not available, 2-3 days old toasted peasant bread works just as well.
Trust me when I say, once you try this dish, you’ll be hooked for life. It’s a staple in my household, and I’m confident that it will soon become one of your favourites too.
- Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG
- Cirò rosato DOC
- Etna rosato DOC
- Negroamaro Rosato Salento IGP
- Nero d’Avola DOC
Serve it with
- Good peasant bread
- Homemade sourdough bread
A brief history of Sicilian Caponata
This traditional Italian dish has a fascinating history. The dish we know today as Caponata, made with vegetables, has its origins in poor cuisine. In fact, it’s said that the name “Caponata” comes from the Mahi-mahi fish, which was called “capone” two or three centuries ago.
Back in the 1700s, the capone fish was a popular delicacy served in the lunches of the Sicilian aristocracy. The meat was prized, but it was dry, so they served it with a sweet and sour sauce that enhanced its flavors. The Spanish influence also brought about the addition of octopus and various molluscs to the dish, which created a sort of “seafood salad”.
In 1839, the gastronome Ippolito Cavalcanti recorded the recipe for fish-based Caponata in his book, The Theoretical-Practical Kitchen, where he used a kind of fresella (rusk bread) to make it rich and full-bodied.
Peasants’ original fakeaway!
However, due to the high cost of fish, the common people imitated this dish by replacing the capone with seasonal vegetables, using the same sweet and sour sauce and accompanied by bread.
Today, however, when we talk about Sicilian Caponata, we refer to the “poor” version of the dish.
There are many variations
Did you know that in Sicily alone, there are over 30 variations of Caponata? Each region has its own unique twist on this delicious dish. The Trapani version includes the addition of peppers, while the Catania version adds potatoes and raisins. What I’m sharing with you today is the Palermitan version, which is the most classic of them all.
Fresh and high quality ingredients are a must
If you want to make the perfect Caponata, just use fresh, high-quality ingredients, cut the aubergines and vegetables into small, uniform pieces, and follow the cooking order indicated in the procedure. It’s a few simple steps, and you’ll be able to bring a creamy, fragrant, and incredibly tasty Caponata to your table.
The recipe contains a good balance of carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats. Overall, Sicilian Caponata is a healthy and delicious recipe that can be a great addition to a balanced diet.
- Proteins 9% 9%
- Carbs 58% 58%
- Fats 33% 33%
The original Sicilian Caponata is made up of exclusively six veggies? That’s right – aubergines, cherry tomatoes, green olives, onions, celery, and capers. But here’s a little tip for you: when it comes to Italian recipes, the freshness and quality of the veggies is absolutely key. Trust me, when you use top-notch ingredients, the difference in taste is mind-blowing!
The best variety is the Violetta Lunga, which is a long and slender dark aubergine with firm flesh that won’t turn to mush when cooked. However, I know it can be tough to find this variety outside of Italy.
When you’re shopping for aubergines (preferably at a farmer’s market), look for ones that are at least as firm as the Violetta Lunga. And the bonus of going to a farmer’s market is that you can chat with the farmer directly, who can help you pick out the right aubergines for your dish.
The traditional variety used is the Pachino, which is sweet and juicy and bursting with flavour. And guess what? You can often find them abroad!
But here’s the thing, when you’re buying cherry tomatoes, freshness is everything. Look for ones that are still on the stalk, and make sure the stalk is green and fresh. And before you buy them, take a whiff of one of the leaves – it should have a fragrant tomato smell. If it doesn’t, then you’re better off finding a different batch. Trust me, you don’t want your Caponata to taste like plastic!
The perfect onions for Sicilian Caponata – the Tonda Musona! These white round onions have a sweet and delicate flavour that is simply perfect for this dish. The only problem is that they’re not always easy to find at your local greengrocer.
But don’t worry, if you’re feeling adventurous and have a green thumb, you could always try growing them yourself – the seeds are widely available. And if that’s not an option, a good alternative is a brown onion. Just make sure to avoid using red onions, as they can be too overpowering and take away from the delicate balance of flavours in the Caponata.
You simply must use Nocellara olives. These little green gems are the best choice for this recipe and add a unique, delicious flavour that’s hard to beat.
And the best part? You can usually find them outside Italy too! A super tasty alternative is the Castelvetrano olives. But if you’re having trouble getting your hands on either of these olives, don’t worry. Whatever you do, please don’t reach for black olives. Their strong taste clashes with the overall dish and throw off the balance of flavours.
For the best possible flavour in your Sicilian Caponata, try to get your hands on capers that have been preserved in salt.
When you use salt-preserved capers, you’ll notice that they don’t have that typical acidic aftertaste that can be found in capers preserved in brine. Plus, they’re easy to find! You can usually snag them online or at an Italian deli near you.
Personally, I love using brown muscovado sugar in my Caponata recipe. It adds just the right amount of sweetness without being too overpowering.
But hey, if you’re not a fan of muscovado sugar, you can always use commercial refined sugar. Just be mindful that it might make your Caponata a tad sweeter than you prefer.
If you’re watching your sugar intake, don’t worry! You can always use stevia as a substitute. And if you’re a honey lover, just be sure to use it sparingly. A little goes a long way in terms of sweetness, so start with half the amount you’d normally use and adjust as needed.
Let’s talk about vinegar. The best type of vinegar to use for your Sicilian Caponata is white wine vinegar. Trust me, it makes a huge difference! The wine gives the vinegar a unique flavour that really adds to the overall taste of the dish. So please, don’t just grab any old vinegar off the shelf – white wine vinegar is the way to go. You’ll thank me later!
The olive oil
Last but not least, let’s talk about the olive oil. You want to go for the good stuff here: extra-virgin olive oil is what you need. This oil comes from the first cold pressing of the olives and is rich in nutrients, vitamins, and flavour. It’s like liquid gold, people! But here’s the thing: there are many imposters out there, even masked as famous brands, so be careful when you choose your bottle. Make sure it’s the real deal by checking out my article on how to choose the perfect extra-virgin olive oil.
If you’re looking to amp up the flavours in your Sicilian Caponata, why not try adding some diced red and yellow peppers with the aubergines when cooking? And if you’ve got a sweet tooth, a handful of raisins will add a nice touch. To really take it up a notch, I suggest throwing in some toasted pine nuts (or toasted almonds if you prefer) and half a fresh red chilli for some added spice. Oh, and don’t forget a few leaves of fresh basil to really make the flavours pop. Just remember not to go overboard – as much as I love basil, the key to good Italian cooking is finding balance and harmony of flavours!
- Total Time: 1 hour
- Yield: 6 portions 1x
- Diet: Vegan
Get ready to taste the flavours of sunny Sicily with this classic Caponata!
- 700 grams of aubergines
- 1 medium white onion
- 200 grams of celery stalks
- 150 grams cherry tomatoes
- 100 grams of pitted green olives
- 100 ml tomato passata
- 2 tbsp of capers
- 30 grams of toasted pine nuts (optional)
- 1/2 small fresh red chilli, finely chopped (optional)
- 3 tbsp of white wine vinegar
- 2 tbsp of muscovado sugar
- Salt, to taste
- Basil, to taste
- 2 tbsps of extra-virgin olive oil
- Vegetable oil (such as sunflower oil) for frying
- To prepare the Sicilian Caponata, start by cleaning the vegetables and cutting the aubergines, celery, and cherry tomatoes into cubes.
- In a large frying pan, heat plenty of oil and fry the aubergines for 3-4 minutes until they’re golden brown. Drain them well and set aside.
- In the same frying pan, add 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and finely chopped onion and -if using- the finely chopped fresh red chilli. Fry for 2 minutes, then add the tomato passata and let it infuse for 5 minute on low heat.
- Next, add the diced celery and cook for another 5 minutes.
- Now it’s time to add the previously pitted olives, capers, and cherry tomatoes. Cook everything on a low heat for 3 minutes.
- Finally, add the fried aubergines, a handful of basil, and let it cook for 2 more minutes. Add the sugar and vinegar, and let it evaporate over high heat.
- Season with salt and, if desired, add pine nuts or almonds that have been previously toasted in a pan for a few minutes.
To get the best results, it is important to pay attention to the size of the vegetables and cut them into evenly sized pieces.
When it comes to the aubergines, you can make them softer and cook them faster by soaking them in water and salt for around ten minutes before cooking them. This is an important step to keep in mind for a successful caponata.
The caponata can be served hot or cold, and it is equally delicious both ways. However, we recommend preparing it the day before serving it, as it will be even tastier the day after.
If you want to preserve your caponata, you can put it into sterilised and dried jars while it is still hot. Let the jars cool down slowly, away from drafts, and cover them with tea towels or blankets.
For a more practical approach, you can keep only the sweet and sour caponata sauce in the jars and freeze the cooled down fried aubergines separately. Combining the two preparations is easy, and the aubergines will taste as if they have just been fried.
The caponata sauce is also versatile and can be used to flavour other dishes like zucchini, artichokes, chicken, fish, and more.
Caponata is typically served as an appetiser or side dish. It is not usually used as a pasta sauce, but it pairs well with cold white rice and a portion of protein on top for a satisfying meal.
- Prep Time: 30 minutes
- Cook Time: 30 minutes
- Category: Vegetables
- Method: stir fry
- Cuisine: Italian
Keywords: aubergines, celery, tomatoes, pine nuts, green olives, onions, eggplants, capers