Caponata, Capunata, Capunatina, however you spell it, each cook has his or her own version.
Some refer to it as a sweet & sour version of ratatouille. Most recipes call for the best of this harvest season. After all, this relish was made to preserve the food for the winter months.
Eggplant is the main ingredient. Tomato, onion, vinegar, garlic, raisins, olives, pine nuts, capers, and olive oil seem pretty standard. Then come individual additions that vary by cook, region, or family. These include fennel, peppers, celery, and zucchini to name a few.
The cook’s choice of seasonings might include red pepper flakes, anchovies, sugar, oregano, mint, or basil. In other words, thrifty cooks made this from whatever the garden or market had in abundance on a given day.
History of Caponata
Like many Mediterranean foods, this Sicilian antipasto relish with its sweet and sour base, dried fruit, and pine nuts probably has its origins in the Middle East.
Food historian Clifford Wright traces it back to a food served on sailing vessels. The vinegar was a preservative and he notes that a version of it was served as a mariner’s breakfast.
On his website, Wright cites Sicilian food authority Pino Correnti who, “... believes that the dish is derived from the Catalan word caponata, meaning a similar kind of relish, and says it first appears in a Sicilian etymology of 1709.”
My version is lighter than most. I brush the eggplant with olive oil and roast or grill it, instead of frying, and sauté the other vegetable in a minimum amount of oil. I also use what’s on hand rather than follow a strict recipe.
I cook the ingredients separately (using my favorite pan) and mix them later. This lets me ensure each vegetable is cooked properly and that nothing gets too mushy. I like my caponata a bit al dente.
Here are a few recipes for those of you who prefer to follow one.
I mentioned preserving this for the winter season. With that, the question of a water bath or pressure canning comes up. Since I’m not an expert on preserving, I would give a nod to the advice of Eugenia Bone, author of the book Well-Preserved. She writes, “If you have ANY doubts about the pH of your recipe, then pressure can.”
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Words: Penny Cherubino (Adapted for BostonZest from one of her Fresh & Local newspaper columns.)
Photos: ©2016 Penny & Ed Cherubino