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Caponata has the perfect balance of sweet and sour, it's rich, made with simple, fresh ingredients. Eat it as a starter, side-dish, or as a light main on some toasted bread.
It's one of those dishes that will make you travel in time and space.
Have a bite and you'll find yourself in 18th century Sicily, where several centuries of foreign invasions heavily influenced the local cuisine, creating one of the most delicious eggplant dishes in the world.
What is caponata
Caponata is a traditional Sicilian dish that is usually served as a starter or as a side dish. In essence, caponata is an eggplant (aubergine) salad or an eggplant stew. Watch a 1-min video story of caponata here.
It's made with deep-fried eggplant (here we make it with baked eggplants) cooked in tomatoes, celery, onion, olives, capers, and a touch of vinegar and sugar, to give it its distinctive sweet and sour taste.
There are close to 40 different variations of caponata in Italy (see the "variations" chapter below), but in this article, I'll show you how to make the most classic and simple version that I learned how to make in Palermo, Sicily.
Ingredients & Substitutions
- Eggplant: the main ingredient of caponata. Globe American eggplants, or Italian eggplants are best. They are the black, round ones.
- Tomatoes: you can either use fresh ripe tomatoes, like we do in this recipe, or canned tomatoes, choppe, whole or even tomato passata.
- Olive oil, onion and celery: use for the flavour base of the dish.
- Olives: I prefer to use pitted olives. Green olives are more traditional, but black olives are good too.
- Capers: important to give that tangy, slightly sour taste. You can use either capers in brine or in salt. If you use capers in salt, rinse them before use.
- Sugar + vinegar: to give the distinct caponata sweet and sour taste. White wine vinegar and plain sugar are generally used in the traditional recipe. You can use other types of vinegar or sugar.
- Salt and pepper: based on your taste and diet requirements, so feel free to deviate from my recipe.
- Basil and parsley: fresh, add at the end for a nice aroma. You can use basil, chopped rasley, or both.
- Pinenuts: these are totally optional. I like to add some on top before serving the caponata.
How to make caponata
Bake the eggplant
Preheat the oven to 350F or 180C and line a baking tray with parchment paper.
First, we cut the eggplant into dice. To do that, cut them in slices on the long side, then each of the slices in sticks, and each stick in dice.
Transfer onto the baking tray and season with salt, pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil. Toss and bake for 30 minutes or until soft.
In the meantime, let's prepare the caponata sauce.
Make the caponata sauce
Every respectable Italian sauce starts with some kind of soffritto, which in this case is diced celery and onion fried in oil.
So, chop the onion and the celery, not too finely, including the leaves of the celery.
To a pan add some olive oil, the chopped onion, and the celery, and fry on medium-low heat for about 5 minutes adding a little water if necessary.
NB: if you are on an oil-free diet, you can just use water to "fry" the onion and the celery.
In the meantime, chop the tomatoes into small chunks. They don't have to be perfect. When in season, I like to use ripe fresh tomatoes, but canned tomatoes are also good for this recipe.
Add the chopped tomatoes - or the canned tomatoes - to the pan with the onion.
Also add olives, capers, salt, and ⅓ cup of water. Give it a stir and let simmer for about 15 minutes.
Now add vinegar and sugar, stir, then taste and adjust. The sauce should be sweet and sour, but very balanced. You can adjust based on your preferences by adding more sugar or more vinegar.
Once you are happy with the sauce, add in the baked eggplants, which by now, should be perfectly baked.
Stir well in the tomato sauce and finish cooking for about 5 minutes. Then turn the heat off and let sit for at least 15 minutes, but better an hour or more, before serving it.
I also like to add some chopped parsley, fresh basil, and toasted pinenuts. But these are optional.
How to serve caponata
Caponata is a perfect make-ahead dish as its flavor gets better a few hours after it's cooked.
Serve in a bowl, on toasted bread, or in a sandwich.
My favorite way to serve it is on our farinata, a chickpea flour flatbread, or on friselle, a type of Apulian crunchy dry bread.
Taste the sauce: depending on your tastes you might want your caponata a little more sweet or a little sourer. As a tip, it's a lot easier to adjust the sauce before you add in the eggplant. So to make sure your caponata sauce has the perfect balance of sweet and sour, taste it before adding the eggplant in.
Let it rest before serving: this is common practice with several eggplant and tomato dishes, they just taste better if you let them sit and cool down for at least 15 minutes before serving them.
Make ahead: caponata is the perfect make-ahead recipe and it can be served warm or at room temperature. We like to always make a double portion and store it in the refrigerator for a few days, as meal-prep for the week.
Frequently asked questions
Caponata comes from the Sicilian word "capone" (Lampuga in Italian and dolphinfish in English) which is an expensive fish.
It seems that back in the days the Sicilian aristocracy would make caponata with this fish and not with eggplant. Hence caponata.
But because most people couldn't afford dolphinfish, they started replacing the fish with eggplant, which is widely available and affordable in Sicily.
Eggplant caponata can be eaten warm or at room temperature. It's best not to eat caponata very hot or very cold, as the flavor will be less pronounced that way.
Store eggplant caponata in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
You can also freeze it, just put it in a container suitable for freezing. Thaw in the microwave, or in the refrigerator.
There are over 35 different variations of Sicilian caponata, depending on the local traditions. The most famous is caponata from:
- Palermo: like the one I made above, except that the eggplants are deepfried in large chunks, they add sicilian pitted and crushed olives, and tomato passata rather than fresh tomatoes.
- Agrigento: in addition to the classic recipe there are raisins, almonds, honey, garlic, and sweet Italian peppers, sometimes called pepperoncini in the USA. They are very similar to Jalapeńo.
- Trapani: in addition to the classic recipe are bell peppers and toasted almonds.
- Catania: there is usually more aubergine and tomatoes, with fresh basil and pinenuts.
- Messina: use fresh tomatoes instead of tomato passata.
Did you know that we develop our recipes to go together for a complete dinner meal plan? Serve this delicious eggplant caponata recipe with:
Double-tap to watch our Vegan Dinner Series | Episode 5 | on YouTube.
Caponata | Eggplant Salad
- 1 kilogram (2.2 lb) eggplant (3 medium, black)
- 500 grams (18 oz) tomatoes (ripe Romas, cherry, or canned)
- 1 large onion
- 2 stalks celery
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- ½ cup green olives (pitted)
- 2 tablespoons capers
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 4 tablespoons white wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 10 leaves basil + handful of parsley (optional)
- 2 tablespoons pinenuts (toasted, optional)
- Preheat the oven to 180C or 360F. Dice the eggplant. Add it to a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Season with about 1 tbsp of olive oil, a pinch of salt and 3 twists of pepper. Bake for 30 minutes.
- In the meantime, chop onion and celery and add them to a pan with 2 tbsp of olive oil. Fry gently for 5 - 8 minutes. Add ⅓ cup of water if the pan is too dry.
- Prep the tomatoes. If you use fresh ripe tomatoes then cut them in small pieces and remove excess water and seeds (if any).
- Add tomatoes (fresh or canned) to pan. Add ½ tsp of salt, olives, capers, and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, till the tomatoes are soft.
- Add sugar and vinegar, stir, then taste the sauce and adjust for salt, sugar, or vinegar if necessary.
- Add baked eggplants, stir, finish cooking for a couple of minutes, then turn the heat off, let rest for at least 15 minutes, then serve as a starter, main or side dish. Best served with crunchy toasted bread or with our delicious farinata.You can top the caponata with toasted pine nuts and fresh basil.
- Caponata can be prepared in advance, stored in the fridge for up to 5 days, and served at room temperature or warm.
Full video on youtube @theplantbasedschool
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Did you try this recipe at home? Let us know in the comments below 🙂