I fell in love with antipasti when I holidayed in the north-western tip of Sicily last September. In the past, I’d completely avoided antipasti: the magazine diet pages advise against eating antipasti for their hidden calories. I’m not entirely sure what changed my mind, but I had definitely ditched that notion of avoiding antipasti by the time I went on holiday. And I’m glad I did, because it certainly made for a glorious gastronomical adventure.
On our final night we stopped by the beautiful seaside town of Castellammare del Golfo, which was dressing itself up for a feria. Sarah and I both love good food so we wanted to finish our holiday with a delicious italian meal. We chanced upon this newly-opened restaurant and entered on the recommendation of an italian man (who was also a chef!) we bumped into at the corner of the street. He spoke english, having worked in England for a few years, and he was holidaying with his family in the area. I do love those serendipitous moments. I think of them as God showing me favour. Others might call them fortune or chance. I absolutely recommend this restaurant to you, but I’m not sure where it is. Maybe the photo will help you find it. We were served a delicious menu del dia. However, truth be told, I was full after the antipasti. I was ever so apologetic to the chef for leaving food on my subsequent platas.
Before we left the beautiful island, with the aquamarine shoreline, I began to dream up an time when we could eat sunny, sicilian food in the backdrop of a wet, grumpy, english winter. The occasion presented itself when I arranged a sicilian evening with my friends Helen and John, who had been to Sicily earlier in the year. Helen and I decided that we’d only serve antipasti, bread and dessert. We didn’t plan a main course. The benefit of hindsight from our holidays.
Helen made tasty parma ham rolls stuffed with cream cheese and mango and a flavourful french bean, sundried tomato and feta cheese salad. My contribution to the evening: homemade caponata and sicilian bread. (I’ll write about my tentative endeavours into bread making another day.)
Caponata isn’t much to look at; it tastes spectacular. How do I describe the flavour? Sweet, tangy, a bit crunchy, moreish. Perhaps, one would bluntly call it an aubergine chutney, but that doesn’t sound very appealing to me. The juices from the vegetables makes a beautiful sauce and the aubergines soak it up. Yum. It was one of the antipasti that was constantly served to us when I was out there.
When I found this Antonio Carluccio recipe(which is in his Italia cookbook), one of the things that almost put me off making this dishis the looooong list of ingredients. But then I remembered my resolution to push my culinary self. Besides, I realised that I had most of the ingredients and I only needed to buy capers and olives… and celery and aubergines and tomatoes.. It really does taste pretty special and it is a very simple dish to make. Admittedly the list of ingredients is on the long side. There’s just quite a bit of prepping and chopping at the start.
The recipe recommended you want the pale violet aubergine that is native to Italy. I found it tricky to source in Coventry so I satisfied myself with the deep violet variety.
Oh, and something else to note. Use a really large, deep frying pan, or a large wok. I started out with a frying pan, then swapped it for a stock pan because of the quantity of the ingredients.
- 600g aubergines (about 3 medium sized aubergines), cut into 1 inch cubes
- 6-8 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, or just olive oil
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 2 celery hearts, cut into little chunks
- 500g ripe tomatoes, chopped
- 100g pitted green olives
- 60g salted capers, rinsed
- 100g slivered almonds
- 2 ripe but firm pears, cored, peeled and sliced
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ground cloves
- 50g caster sugar
- 50ml white wine vinegar
1. In a large bowl, immerse the cubed aubergine in salted water for 1 hour. Then drain and press down firmly on the aubergines in order to squeeze as much water out. Transfer the aubergine onto a clean tea towel and pat the aubergine cubes dry. Prepare a plate with a few sheets of kitchen paper.
2. Heat most of the extra virgin olive oil in the frying pan, or stock pan and fry the aubergine cubes until it’s a golden colour, rather than a bit burnt like mine. Transfer the fried aubergine onto the plate with the kitchen paper, so that as much oil is absorbed. Leave to one side.
3. Add more oil, if necessary, and fry the onion until soft. Add in all the other ingredients, except the caster sugar and white wine vinegar (really important you leave these out for now). So, that’s the celery, tomatoes, olives, capers, almonds, pears, cinnamon and cloves. Simmer for about 20 minutes.
4. Add the aubergines to the pan, with the sugar and white wine vinegar. Season with salt, if required. Cook for another 10-15 minutes. Take it off the heat and let it cool down.
Caponata can be eaten warm, and believe me, I couldn’t resist a wee taste of it. But it is, oh so delicious, when served cold.
This made A LOT. I had loads leftover from the sicilian evening. I took it to a friend’s birthday party later that week, by which time the flavours had matured and we kept going back for some more. I gave some to a sicilian student, I stirred it through pasta to make packed lunches, and finally finished it off with a friend of mine with some bread and salad. It’s really handy to have a few jars of this in the fridge for a delicious lunch, or a contribution to a dinner.