Caponata – A Sicilian Palate & A Painter’s Pallet

April 13th, 2011 / Comments 7

I couldn’t ignore the colors of the fruits and vegetables piled high in boxes and baskets at the open-air market in Ortigia. I shopped as if I were in an art supply store choosing tubes of paint.

eggplant 01 Caponata   A Sicilian Palate & A Painters Pallet

Watercolor by Carol Egbert

I bought a deep violet eggplant,

pepper 01 Caponata   A Sicilian Palate & A Painters Pallet

Watercolor by Carol Egbert

a sweet pepper that was sap green on one side and cadmium orange on the other, white cippolini onions with forest green leaves, a bunch of celery with chartreuse leaves attached to leaf-green stems,

olives 01 Caponata   A Sicilian Palate & A Painters Pallet

Watercolor by Carol Egbert

blue-black olives cured in oil, a scoop of grey-green salt cured capers, six Windsor yellow lemons and two kilos of blood oranges.

I created an ad hoc still life as I unpacked the market bags and thought about what I would cook. The caponata I had eaten in Taormina earlier in the week came to mind. Considered a Sicilian classic, caponata, like pasta, couscous, oranges and lemons, was brought by the Arabs when they conquered Sicily in 827 AD. The Arabs, then called Saracens, also introduced sophisticated methods of irrigation that made vegetable farming possible. Making caponata, a salad of cooked vegetables with a sweet and sour sauce, is an opportunity to combine colorful vegetables and Mediterranean history. Here’s how I did it:


When I was choosing the eggplant at the market, a fellow shopper suggested that it was important to soak eggplant in salted water for at least half an hour before cooking it. I usually skip this step, but she insisted it that kept the eggplant white and prevented it from absorbing excess oil, so – when in Sicily, do as the Sicilians do. I cut the unpeeled eggplant into one-inch cubes, put them into a large bowl filled with water, added a tablespoon of sea salt, Sicilian of course, and left them to soak for half an hour. I rinsed two tablespoons of salt-cured capers in cold water and put them in a bowl of water to soak to eliminate the excess salt.

I put two tablespoons of olive oil in a frying pan and when it was hot, but not smoking, I added the drained eggplant cubes and cooked them over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until they were tender and browned on all sides. It took about fifteen minutes. I put the cooked eggplant into a colander, poured the olive oil that drained from it back into the frying pan, reheated it and added the sweet pepper that had been cut into one-inch pieces. After about ten minutes the pepper was cooked and had begun to brown and I added it to the eggplant in the colander.

I followed the same procedure to cook one thinly sliced onion and four thinly sliced stalks of celery, including the tender chartreuse leaves. I used a small glass to gently push the excess olive oil out of the vegetables into the frying pan, reheated it and added the rinsed and drained capers and a handful of olives to the oil. After they had cooked for three minutes, I added the capers and olives to the cooked vegetables and returned the frying pan to the heat to make the agro dolce or sweet and sour sauce.

I added a tablespoon of granulated sugar to the oil that was flavored with the caramelized juices of the vegetables and cooked it over medium heat, stirring constantly. When the sugar had melted, I stirred in two tablespoons of red wine vinegar and cooked the mixture until most of the vinegar had evaporated and the sauce had begun to thicken.

I added all of the cooked vegetables to the sauce and gently stirred them together over medium heat for three minutes to combine the flavors. I put the finished caponata into a bowl to cool.

To complete my Arab inspired cooking extravaganza, I made orange-lemonade by adding three tablespoons of sugar to the juice from two lemons and one blood orange to a pitcher of water.

Caponata is eaten at room temperature and served as an appetizer or as a side dish. It can also be heated and served with pasta or polenta and, if the ingredients are cut more finely before being cooked, it can be used as a spread for crostini. Caponata is a recipe that does not require exact amounts or ingredients. Its flavor improves with age and it will keep for a week in the fridge. Some recipes include chunks of tomatoes or tomato paste, green olives can be used instead of ripe ones and anchovies may be added with the capers and olives. The olive vendor, who also sells chocolate from Modica, suggested I could make the caponata “Baroque” by sprinkling it with unsweetened chocolate just before it is served. That sounded strange to me, what do you think?

Download and print caponata recipe with an ingredients list here.

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• 7 Responses to “Caponata – A Sicilian Palate & A Painter’s Pallet”

  • Bella Piazza says:

    We’ve had trouble getting eggplant of late. Prices are thru the roof. I’m sure later on prices and availability will moderate. I like the combination of veggies. Thanks

  • This recipe sounds great for mid August in Vermont. The eggplant, pepper, and tomato plants are 3-6 inches high in our greenhouse. Can I use this recipe in August to print out for my CSA members? Our spring CSA starts next week with a bounty of lush spring greens-spinach, kales, asian greens, mustard greens, arugula, scallions, radishes, baby lettuce, mache, radishes. Vermont now has almost year round fresh local veggies if you join Clay Hill Corners CSA, just not eggplant or peppers yet. But we can dream about summer caponata..

  • Char Gardner says:

    A good recipe to save for a few months from now when we’ll at last be able to have tasty eggplants and peppers, however briefly!

    One little thing: It took the Saracens (Christian name for Muslims, not necessarily Arabs)some years to take over Sicily but it began in about 827 -must be a typo in your post. Glad you mentioned their contribution of water engineering and plant propagation carried forward under the Norman king Roger who, for a time, fostered a kind of tolerance.

  • I read every word of the recipe…If I try it, I will be eating it alone, since it calls for eggplant, peppers and celery.
    If I leave those ingredients out, and triple the granulated sugar, Joby might join me in the Arab feast.
    Looking forward to seeing you soon. Love to Charles

  • Annie Houston says:

    It sounds Baroque to me, but I loved reading about Saracen Caponata!

  • Kathryn says:

    Sounds wonderful! Will look for ingredients today to try it at home, but will be stymied by the lack of really fresh things in Vermont in April. Just got my first local Arugula at Dutton’s stand this week. Have you been to Siracuse? A local friend recommends a visit.

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