How to make caponata – recipe | Italian food and drink

ANDs Matthew Fort explains in his book about 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?

Transfer 20 minutesplus salting time
Cook 1 hr 20 min
Serves 6

1 large eggplant (about 500g)
1 large courgette
1 large red onion
2 celery sticks
150g ripe tomatoes
40g green olives
1 tbsp dark chocolate (optional)
Vegetable or sunflower oilthat fry
3 tbsp olive oil
1½ tsp chili flakes
40g capers
40g sultanas or raisins
1 tbsp sugar
150 ml passata
100 ml red-wine vinegar
40g almonds or pine nuts
Small bunch of mint (or parsley, if preferred)

1 Select your vegetables

Selection of veg.

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 notes

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 savory contexts, you can leave either out without spoiling the dish.

3 Dice and salt the big veg

Felicity Cloake's caponata: diced and salted aubergines and courgettes.

Cut the aubergine and courgette into roughly 2cm dice. Although 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 the sink, trying to keep them in two distinct layers, and leave for at least 30 minutes.

4 Peel and chop the rest

Felicity Cloake's caponata: we're chopping celery and onion here.

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.

Felicity Cloake's caponata: grating chocolate.

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 and 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

frying aubergine – eggplant – and courgette for Felicity Cloake's caponata.

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.

frying onion and celery and then adding tomato in a casserole for Felicity Cloake's caponata
Photograph: The Guardian. Food styling: Laurie Perry.

Once hot, fry the onion and celery with a pinch of salt until they begin to color, then stir in the chili 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.

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 for Felicity Cloake's caponata.

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.

Sprinkle Felicity Cloake's caponata with nuts and then serve.

Serve the caponata at room temperature or warm, rather than hot, with both scattered on top.

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