Homemade Sicilian eggplant Caponata is delicious served as an appetizer with crostini or as an accompaniment to chicken or fish. It is a blend of eggplant, olives, celery, tomato, and capers. The bold flavors of these simple vegetables are heightened and complemented by the sweet and sour “agrodolce” sauce that it is cooked in.
Caponata tastes better the next day so it is a great make-ahead appetizer, relish, or accompaniment for any meal. Over time the flavors meld and intensify which makes it wonderfully complex.
What is Caponata?
Most people are familiar with popular eggplant recipes like eggplant parmigiana or pasta alla Norma, but not everyone has had the pleasure of trying this Sicilian favorite. Think of this as a chunky eggplant salad in a tangy sauce. It seems as every small town has a slightly different “authentic recipe”. As with much of Sicilian cuisine, caponata has influences from many different cultures including the Spanish, Arabic, Greek and French. Recipes for caponata date back to the early 1700 and there are different stories of how this traditional Sicilian recipe came to be.
One claim about it’s origin, is that it was originally served alongside a fish that is plentiful in Sicily called a “Capone”. Less affluent Sicilian people could not afford the fish, so they substituted eggplant. Another claim is that the word caponata derives from the Latin word “caupo” which means tavern. This version contends that this was a dish that was often served in taverns that sailors frequented. A history of the Sicilian Caponata by Clifford A. Wright and Italy Magazine have some interesting stories about caponata’s history.
Regardless of it’s origins, today there are more than 37 different versions of caponata, stemming from the different areas of Sicily. Variations of the recipe might include honey, pine nuts, sweet raisins, bell peppers, or zucchini. Others go as far as adding in octopus or pepperoni. My mother’s recipe is very basic and would lend itself nicely to experimenting with some of these other ingredients.
Main ingredients you need for this Caponata recipe
- Eggplant: There are many type of eggplant. The regular globe eggplants are most often available in our grocery stores and they work quite well for this recipe.
- Chopped celery and yellow onion
- Garlic minced
- Green olives or Spanish olives (stuffed with pimento): Black olives can be substituted.
- Vinegar: you can use plain white vinegar, red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar
- Crushed tomatoes or tomato puree: Fresh tomatoes can be substituted if you remove the skins before adding them to the rest of the ingredients.
- Fresh basil leaves and/or shredded parmesan cheese are optional toppings.
How to make this Sicilian eggplant recipe
- The eggplant can be peeled but it does not need to be. The peel will soften while cooking. Cut the eggplant into similar bite size pieces so that they cook evenly and are easy to eat. Once it is cut, salt it and place it in a calendar over a bowl while you prepare the rest of the vegetables. The salt will draw out the excess liquid and ensure that it does not become soggy during cooking. It also helps to tenderize the eggplant resulting in a creamy texture.
- Add two tablespoons of olive oil to a large skillet or a thick-bottomed pan set over medium heat. Sauté the eggplant cubes until tender and golden brown. Transfer the eggplant to a mixing bowl and set aside.
- Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil to the pan and sauté the the celery and onion for a couple of minutes. Mince the garlic and add it to the vegetables. Cook until they are tender.
- Add the vinegar and sugar to the pan and allow it to reduce by half. Stir in the crushed tomatoes and cook for an additional 2 minutes.
- Transfer the cooked vegetable mixture into the bowl with the eggplant. Add the capers and olives and stir to combine. Salt and pepper the caponata to taste. Refrigerate overnight in an airtight container or set it at room temperature for at least 1 hour before serving.
How to serve this Sicilian dish
My family recipe is quite simple and very versatile. Our caponata pairs perfectly with crusty bread as a simple main dish for lunch or as an appetizer with crackers or crostini. I especially love the tangy flavors of this humble eggplant recipe served with chicken cutlets. It is also a delicious side dish for fish or pork.
As I mentioned earlier, caponata gets better as it sits overnight, making it the perfect make ahead dish when you are entertaining. I find it is best when served at room temperature, but I often eat it straight out of the refrigerator, and it is still excellent. If you want to serve it the same day that you make it, I suggest allowing it to sit at room temperature for at least an hour. This will allow the flavors to develop.
Caponata placed in an airtight container can be stored in the refrigerator for 4-5 days.
Sicilian Eggplant is a round lavender colored eggplant with a firm flesh.
Salting eggplant was a way of removing bitterness from the vegetable before cooking it. Today farmers have bred eggplant to be much sweeter so this step is not necessary to get the best flavor out of it. But salting does keep the eggplant from absorbing excess oil when frying it. Sprinkling salt on top of eggplant helps create a creamy texture while using less oil.
A perfectly ripe eggplant will be slightly firm, but not hard. You should be able to push on the skin a little without being soft. An eggplant is sweetest when it is young. If it is young and fresh it will feel heavy.
Other authentic Sicilian recipes that you might like:
Nonna’s Zucchini and Potato soup
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Homemade Sicilian Eggplant Caponata
- 5 cups Eggplant About 2 small or one large eggplant, cubed
- 2 tsp. Salt
- 1½ cups Celery diced
- 1 cup Onion diced
- 1 clove Garlic minced
- 4 tbsp. Olive Oil divided
- 1 cup Green Olives Spanish olives, stuffed with pimento, sliced
- 2½ tbsp. Capers drained
- 3 tbsp. Sugar
- 3 tbsp. Vinegar
- 4 tbsp. Crushed Tomato canned
- Salt and Pepper to taste
- Cut the eggplant into bite size cubes. There is no need to peel it. Toss the eggplant with 2 tsp. of salt and place in a strainer or calendar set over a bowl. The eggplant will release some liquid.
- In the mean time dice the rest of the vegetables.
- In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil. Add the eggplant and cook until it is tender and slightly golden, about 5 minutes. Transfer the eggplant into a mixing bowl.
- Add another 2 tbsp. of olive oil to the same pan set over medium high heat.
- Add the celery, onion and garlic to the sauté pan and cook about 2 minutes.
- When the celery is tender, add the sugar and vinegar to the pan and cook stirring often until the sauce reduces by half. Lower the heat, add the crushed tomato and cook 2-3 more minutes.
- Transfer the celery and onion mixture to the bowl with the eggplant. Add the capers and olives and stir to combine. Salt and pepper to taste.
- Caponata can be made a day ahead. Cover and refrigerate overnight. When you are ready to serve it, remove it from the refrigerator and allow it come to room temperature. If you will be serving it the same day, allow to sit at room temperature for at least an hour.
2 thoughts on “Homemade Sicilian Eggplant Caponata”
Have to admit with not being Italian I was a bit hesitant with this but it really is good.