I had my first taste of Caponata on holiday in Taormina two years ago and haven’t been able to get enough of this rich, tomatoey Sicilian stew since. It has a slightly caramelised, sticky sweetness thanks to the very slowly cooked onions and balsamic vinegar, while a smattering of capers gives a piquant bite. But it’s the humble aubergine – gloriously soft, melt in the mouth, olive oil-annointed aubergines – that are real centrepiece of this dish.
Caponata is also brilliantly versatile – you can eat it warm and straight from a bowl like a very thick soup, or use it as a sauce for pasta or couscous. It’s perhaps at its best, though, served at room temperature a day or two after making on hunks of ciabatta and topped with shavings of Pecorino cheese.
My long-standing favourite recipe is from Jamie Oliver’s Italy cookbook, but this time I tried out Yotam Ottolenghi’s slightly Middle Eastern-influenced spin on the classic which includes a dose of spicy harissa paste.
Heat both 80ml olive oil and 80ml sunflower oil in a large, heavy-based sauté pan for which you have a lid. Lay in 1 large diced aubergine and fry for five to seven minutes, until golden-brown, stirring occasionally. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the aubergine to a colander and sprinkle with a bit of salt. After a few minutes, transfer to soak on a sheet of baking parchment or paper towel.
Add 3 sticks of finely chopped celery to the hot oil, fry for three minutes, add 1 diced red pepper and cook for two minutes. Transfer to the colander, then onto the parchment.
Sauté 1 thinly sliced medium onion and 1/2 tsp harissa in the oil (add a little more to the pan, if need be) for seven minutes, until soft and golden. Drain off any excess oil from the pan, add 150g tinned tomatoes and 2 tbsp vinegar, stir and bring to a simmer. Add your fried vegetables, a handful of capers and another of pitted green olives plus 1 tsp caster sugar and seasoning. I also added a splash of red wine to stop the (oh dear, I see a theme emerging here… Yotam is rather more puritanical and says to use water). Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 10 minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat, add 30g raisins. Leave to come to room temperature, add the juice of a lemon and a mound of chopped parsley. Taste and adjust the seasoning before serving.
[By the way, if you’re thinking my first couple of recipes have been quite tame by Masterchef standards I’m planning to up my game over the next few weeks by tackling choux pastry, souffle and macaroons next, in that order. Watch this space!]