Monday, October 20, 2008

Sicilian caponata

Fresh from a Mediterranean holiday, VB & JG are sporting real tans and a renewed appreciation for artichokes and eggplants. Not generally vegetables you can get terribly excited about in other parts of the world, these two plants are an interesting contrastive metaphor for the present-day capitals of the former Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

In Naples they are treated simply. Artichokes are trimmed and steamed or boiled, then dressed in oil and allowed to taste only of themselves, the artichoke's natural water-soluble acid cynarin producing a lasting sweetness in the mouth and contributing to the flavour of anything eaten afterwards. Eggplants are full of flavour, bitterness and a smoky spiciness. Unlike Australian eggplants which are not generally flavoured enough to require the debittering process, Italian eggplants are usually always sliced and salted, left for an hour to allow the salt to draw out the bitter juices, then washed and dried before cooking. In Naples, they are then simply fried, or battered and fried.

By contrast, in Palermo, artichokes are usually prepared with stuffings containing combinations of the favourite flavours of the island: anchovy, orange, pine nuts, oregano, raisins, fennel. Eggplants are rarely served in the plain Neapolitan manner; the simplest version we found was melanzane 'alla parmigiana', a sort of free form version of a baked eggplant parmigiana, the fried slices topped with tomato sauce and grated cheese. But possibly the most elaborate treatment for eggplant is caponata

Peter Robb, in Midnight in Sicily, his thoroughly intriguing account of digging around Sicily for the real history of the Mafia, finds caponata not just on menus, but in literature too. Ruminating on comments made by the writer Leonardo Sciascia about a painting of Palermo's Vucciria market by Renato Guttuso, Robb writes

"Sciascia had mentioned certain sweet and savoury dishes that contained everything, where the savoury merges with the sweet and the sweet into the savoury. With their suggestion of a gorgeous fantasy anchored in a palpable sensuous reality, something out of the Arabian Nights, the words were wildly romantic and at the same time domestic, familiar. What was Sciascia talking about? Then I remembered caponata." (1996, p333)

He knew caponata from Naples, where it's more like a fish soup spooned over stale bread, described by Elizabeth David as "a primitive fisherman's and sailor's dish", but this is not the same as caponata on the island, which is a celebration of vegetables doesn't necessarily include any fish.

"It was only when craning over a neighbouring table once, under the fluorescent lights of the Horse Shoe, through the flying bread and the slamming plates and the wine-splashed paper cloths, that I realized caponata in Palermo was something very different. It was the colour that struck me first. The colour of darkness. A heap of cubes of that unmistakably luminescent dark, dark purply-reddish goldy richness, glimmering from a baroque canvas, that comes from eggplant, black olives, tomato and olive oil densely cooked together, long and gently." (Robb: 1996, p334)

Sicilian caponata

3 large eggplants, cut into large dice
1 onion, finely chopped
3 celery stalks, including leaves, chopped
4 peeled, chopped tomatoes (or 1 can)
1/2 a cup Gaeta or any black olives (pitted or not, as you like)
1/2 a cup raisins
1/4 a cup pine nuts
1 tablespoon capers
4 tablespoons white vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
salt & pepper
olive oil and vegetable or peanut oil

Fry the onion and celery in olive oil until soft and fragrant. Add raisins, capers and pine nuts, stir for a minute, then add the tomato, olives, salt and pepper. Cook this thick sauce gently while frying the eggplant.

In the vegetable or peanut oil, fry the eggplant pieces until cooked and golden. They can be prepared with or without debittering (see above for method). Add salt to the frying pan if not debittering. 

Set the eggplant aside to finish off the sauce. Stir the vinegar and sugar into the tomato and celery mixture, cooking for a few minutes. Add the fried eggplant, mix gently and then remove from the heat. Usually this is served as a starter at room temperature, when the flavours have melded nicely.

This quantity makes a large pot, but it keeps well in the fridge for 5 days.

Numerous variations in other references include octopus, lobster, swordfish, grated bottarga (dried tuna roe) and anchovies, almonds, orange juice and grated chocolate.

The Vucciria market in the heart of Palermo, a shadow of its past glory