Caponata is a dense condiment of chunky fried eggplant and other vegetables and seasonings, jam-packed with flavor—sweet, sour, salty all at once. Sicilians make caponata in many variations and enjoy it in countless ways. Here’s a version I love—use it as a condiment on grilled meats and steamed fish; as a sauce for pasta; or as topping for bruschetta.
Makes 8 cups, serving 6 or more
4 or 5 small firm eggplants (2 pounds total)
2-1/2 teaspoons coarse sea salt or kosher salt or to taste
½ cup red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
2 medium onions (1 pound), peeled cut in 1-1/2 inch chunks
2 or 3 ribs celery, trimmed cut in 1-inch chunks (2 cups)
1 cup cerignola or other large green brine-cured olives, pitted and cut in ½-inch pieces
1 pound fresh plum tomatoes
1 cup vegetable oil
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup small capers, drained
10 large fresh basil leaves
A small pan for reducing the vinegar and sugar
One heavy-bottomed skillet or sauté pan, diameter of 12-inches or wider
Trim the eggplants and slice them (skin on) into chunks about 2-inches long and 1-inch thick. Toss the chunks with 2 teaspoons of salt and drain in a colander for 30 minutes to an hour. Rinse and pat them dry with paper towels.
Meanwhile pour the red wine vinegar and ½ cup water into the small pan, stir in the sugar and bring to a boil. Cook until reduced by half and syrupy, then remove from the heat.
Slice the onions into 1-1/2 pieces—you should have about 4 cups. Trim the celery stalks (and peel them if they’re tough and stringy) then chop in 1-inch chunks. Slice the plum tomatoes lengthwise into 1-inch thick wedges; scrape out the seeds and put the wedges in a sieve to drain off the juices. Roughly chop the pitted olives into ½-inch pieces.
To fry the eggplant, pour the cup of vegetable oil into the skillet and set over medium heat. Spread all the eggplant chunks in the hot oil and fry for 10 to 15 minutes, tossing and stirring frequently, until the eggplant is soft and cooked through and nicely browned on all sides. Turn off the heat, lift the chunks out of the oil with a slotted spoon and spread them on paper towels to drain. Discard the frying oil and wipe out the skillet.
Pour ¼ cup of the olive oil in the skillet and set it over medium heat. Stir in the onion and celery chunks, season with 1/4 teaspoon salt and cook, tossing often, until they’ve wilted and lightly colored, 8 minutes or so. Toss in the olives and the capers, heat quickly until sizzling, then scatter in the tomatoes wedges and fold them in with the other vegetables. Season with another ¼ teaspoon salt and cook until the tomatoes are hot and softened but still holding their shape, about 5 minutes.
Spread the eggplant chunks on top of the onions and tomatoes, still over medium heat, and turn them in gently with a big spoon or spatula. When everything is sizzling, pour the vinegar syrup all over and stir it in. Cook a bit longer, then drizzle another couple tablespoons of olive oil over and stir in.
Cook the vegetables together for about 10 minutes, then turn off the heat. Tear the basil leaves into shreds and stir them into the caponata. Taste and adjust the seasonings; let cool to room temperature and serve.