This holiday season, surprise family and friends by serving caponata (Sicilian eggplant salad similar to the French ratatouille) as a side dish. They will love you for it! Delicioso!
What is caponata? It’s a Sicilian eggplant dish. At least, that is its most common description. If we’re to be more accurate, it should be called a mixed vegetable dish because eggplants are only among the medley of vegetables included in this lovely dish. Think ratatouille with Italian flavors.
Some call it a stew but it’s really more of a salad. The vegetables are cooked and, after they are all done, sweetened vinegar is stirred in to give it its distinctive agrodolce (sweet-sour) taste.
And just how is the vinegar sweetened? By soaking raisins in it. And you don’t throw away those raisins after they have sweetened the vinegar. You add them to the vegetables too. So, you see, caponata has multiple textures.
As for the pistachio… well, pine nuts traditionally go into caponata. But it’s a headache finding pine nuts in my part of the world. Pistachio, on the other hand, is not only my husband’s favorite nut, it has also become accessible lately. Tip: we buy nuts at baking supply stores. Cheaper and the availability is more reliable.
So, how easy is it to cook caponata?
Easy, like this.
Start by soaking raisins (I used golden raisins) in red wine vinegar. Do this before everything else to allow the raisins to impart their sweetness.
Then, you toast the pistachio in an oil-free pan until aromatic and lightly browned in spots. Cool.
The actual cooking begins by sauteing onion and garlic in olive oil.
When the onion pieces are soft and just starting to brown along the edges, add sliced celery. Season with salt and pepper, and stir.
Next, you add diced eggplants and more salt and pepper.
The last batch of vegetables consists of bell peppers and tomatoes. After adding them, sprinkle in salt and pepper again.
Why add salt and pepper several times instead of seasoning at the end of cooking? It’s called layering flavors. That’s the secret to a well-seasoned dish.
When all the vegetables are cooked, turn off the heat and add the raisins and the vinegar in which they were soaked.
Stir, taste, and add more salt and pepper, if needed. Then, toss in the nuts.
You may serve the caponata at this point but if you allow the vegetables to sit in the sweetened vinegar longer, the caponata will be even tastier. Cool it, transfer it to a covered container and keep in the fridge overnight. Serve it the following day. Chilled or at room temperature. Don’t worry about the oil. Olive oil does not harden in the fridge.
Now you see why caponata is the perfect holiday side dish? You can cook a large batch the day before the big meal and just let the flavors develop without further human intervention.
Here’s the printable recipe.
- 1/4 cup golden raisins
- 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
- 1/3 cup pistachio nuts
- 1/4 cup olive oil (doesn't have to be extra virgin)
- 1 onion diced
- 3 cloves garlic peeled and thinly sliced
- 1 rib celery cut into 1/4-inch thick slices
- 1 generous pinch oregano
- 2 to 3 eggplants diced
- 2 to 3 bell pepper deseeded and diced
- 3 to 4 tomatoes diced
- basil leaves thinly sliced
- Place the raisins in a bowl and pour in the red wine vinegar. Set aside.
- In an oil-free pan, toast the pistachio until lightly browned and aromatic. Set aside to cool.
- Set a wide frying pan on the stove over medium-low heat and heat the olive oil.
- Spread the diced onion on the bottom of the pan and cook without disturbing for a few minutes. Stir. Add the garlic and oregano. Continue cooking with occasional stirring until the edges of the onion bits start to brown.
- Throw in the sliced celery. Sprinkle in salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, for a minute.
- Add the diced eggplants. Sprinkle in more salt and pepper. Stir. Cover the pan and cook for about five minutes.
- Next, add the bell peppers and tomatoes. Sprinkle in salt and pepper once more. Stir. Cover the pan again and cook for five minutes.
- Remove the pan from the heat. Pour in the red wine vinegar with the raisins. Stir. Taste. If the flavors seem unbalanced, the dish might benefit from more salt and pepper.
- Add the pistachio and stir.
- Cover the pan loosely (a vent will prevent the vegetables from continuing to cook in the residual heat) and allow the flavors of the caponata to develop for about 30 minutes.
- Sprinkle sliced basil over the caponata and serve.