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I think I've said it all before - so let's try caponata

"There is no harm in repeating a good thing" Plato

And there's no doubt that caponata is a good thing. But I was actually quite depressed before I found that quote, because it's been one of those days of struggling to think of something new to say. I had one idea and started pursuing it in my head and then realised that I had said it all before, because, not only was the concept a repeat but the stories I thought to tell to illustrate it would also be repeats. I mean there are only so many interesting, memorable, exciting, traumatic, joyful ... things that happen to we ordinary mortals, and so we run the risk of boring our friends and family silly by repeating the same things over and over again. So I abandoned the idea I had and decided to play it safe and go for that first Sicilian C - caponata. Hoping all the while that I hadn't done it before.

Incidentally that rather glorious picture at the top of the page - which I think is a record cover from someone or some group called Quin for a song or an album called 'Over again' - resembles the way my brain is currently working. Lighting up here and there with vague ideas but tangled up with a tangle of connections and ultimately consuming itself. Getting nowhere.

So when looking for a quote and finding one from Plato no less, and an optimistic reassuring one at that, was morale boosting. Although I'm not sure that what I repeat is good. Caponata is good though. So let's go with caponata.

The first thing to say is that caponata is not ratatouille. I confess that in my head it was the Italian version of ratatouille, with some sultanas and something sour - a sweet and sour taste for fundamentally the same dish. But now that I have perused several recipes. I see that it is not.

Above is a picture of the version from Massimo Bottura - possibly Italy's top chef - 3 Michelin stars and his restaurant in the top 5 of that world competition surely makes him an authority. Although then again maybe it's exactly because of that that his recipe wouldn't be 'authentic'. However, he did give a very complete list of the differences with ratatouille:

"1. Sauce: Sicilian caponata is cooked in an agrodolce (sweet and sour sauce). Caponata recipes typically include vinegar and sugar or honey, and the finished product should taste somewhat tart. French ratatouille is not meant to taste sour; the dish’s only acidity comes from tomatoes.

2. Cooking method: To make caponata, the eggplant is deep-fried in oil. There are many methods for making ratatouille, but most call for sautéing, baking, or stewing the eggplant—not deep-frying it.

3. Vegetables: Caponata traditionally includes celery, which is not typical of ratatouille, and ratatouille often features zucchini and red bell peppers, which are not generally used in caponata.

4. Capers and green olives: Caponata typically includes capers and green olives, which add even more sour flavor. Ratatouille is not made with capers or olives; instead, it gets a jolt of flavor from garlic cloves, which are not often found in Italian caponata.

5. Herbs: Caponata is sometimes garnished with parsley or mint. Ratatouille usually incorporates several herbs, such as fresh basil, bay leaf, and thyme."

Having now perused several different versions I think I can safely say that the main ingredient is eggplant. You simply cannot have a caponata without eggplant. Ditto for the capers, and the vinegar, dried fruit (or honey or sugar). Celery to the 'authentic' brigade is big, but then again, some left it out. Olives, mint, tomatoes, peppers - they seem to be almost optional. The version shown here - one of the most photogenic that I found was from Cookie and Kate and I'm pretty sure that it's not that authentic. It looks more like a ratatouille I think. Mind you I just checked the ingredients and it does indeed have the celery and the vinegar, pine nuts, capers. But it's a bit fussy - the tomatoes and eggplant are roasted for a start.

Next controversy - how big are the bits of eggplant and how to fry them and I think the most convincing arguments I found were for deep frying largish chunks to avoid oiliness (the celery is deep-fried too):

"Don't be tempted to cut the aubergine chunks too small or they will take on so much oil that they will become heavy. If this happens you don't get to admire the lovely creamy flavour and texture. I've eaten caponata that's been swimming in olive oil, but I much prefer mine to be less oily." Jamie Oliver

This is Jamie's 'authentic' version on the left - and the link above will take you to the recipe. He's not alone in this caution on oil though.

“a recipe that tells you simply to ‘pan-fry eggplant in oil’ plays a cruel joke on a home cook … before I knew better, I would start with a generous amount of oil, but the pan would be completely dry after a few seconds. When I added more oil, that disappeared, too, leaving me with the choice of pouring in even more or having some part of the eggplant cooked in a dry pan.” Andreas Viestad

Felicity Cloake having tried both ways also goes the deep fry route - and I guess that principle could also go for ratatouille or any other recipe that calls for fried eggplant.

I must admit that I had not realised that celery played such a big part in many of the 'authentic' recipes. Jane Grigson goes so far as to say:

"Celery is a main ingredient unless you live in Malta when you would add green peppers and reduce the celery to a stalk or two."

Somehow I don't think of celery as being a Mediterranean thing. To me it's a vegetable of more northern climes, but it is indeed most often included - sometimes in quite large quantities. But then Italians do often start off their stews and ragùs with a sofrito of onions, celery and carrots, so why not celery in caponata?

So I collected together a group of recipes from the Italian gurus - and also Ottolenghi, who is after all half Italian - for you to choose from. Although I now realise that I am presenting this dish at the wrong time of the year. It's generally eaten cold - or room temperature anyway - as an antipasti or a side dish with things like tuna. But like ratatouille it can be used in all manner of ways - tarts perhaps. These days you can put almost anything in a tart. Anyway - below is the selection from Anna del Conte; Ruth Rogers; Yotam Ottolenghi and Antonio Carlucci whose version is the most beautiful. Not that that has anything to do with him - praise to delicious. uk and their food stylists and photograaphers for that. Their cooks too. Probably Carlucci just provided the recipe. On the whole, I have to say this particular dish almost falls into Nigella's category of brown food that doesn't look as good as it tastes.

And finally the outliers. Well you have to mess with it don't you and guess who does - yes Ottolenghi of course with Caponata with silken tofu and which he defends with these words:

“I think playfulness and the ability to put the ingredients together is really important, because that’s the mother of innovation. And if we’re talking about that caponata, it is very clear to me that the tofu, inherently bland, is great at soaking up those flavours. And if I put a dollop of ricotta there, nobody would care that much. I think you need to be thoughtful about it, you need to stand behind what you’re doing, and then I think the Italians will follow, or at least some of them.” Yotam Ottolenghi

And I should have said that he also added harissa to his more traditional version. Well he would have added chillies in some form or another wouldn't he? Besides harissa is in keeping with the Arabic side of things in the dish.

He's not alone though. Jamie also has a go with Carrot caponata - which makes caponata into a kind of sauce really and, if you think about it, is at least Sicilian in spirit:

“Sicilian cooking embraces contrast, discord, counterpoint, counterpunching, variance and the absence of delicacy … the dishes are as bold and baroque as any flamboyant building.” Mathew Fort

Well you would certainly say that about this.

Elizabeth David had a recipe in her classic Italian Food, which ironically came from a German and to which she adds this rather dismissive footnote, that speaks volumes:

"No translation. An interesting dish, though. Try it in half quantities." ED 1963

POSTSCRIPT - Yesterday's dinner - Ottolenghi's Greens and chermoula potato pie.

Well here is my finished version.

What's the verdict? Well I gave it 4.5 stars (out of five), although now that I have thought about it a bit, maybe reduce to 4. The taste of the filling and the chermoula was great, although, even though the potatoes had been sliced very thinly in my mandoline, they were not crisp. Somehow I think they should have been crisp. Maybe I would slice them a little more thickly next time and cook at a higher temperature. For me the pastry was also a tiny bit soggy. I think I would prefer a shortcrust pastry. David gave it 3.5 because, in his words, "it was too rich". Maybe there was a touch too much cheese? I admit there was a little more than the recipe said but it wasn't really worth keeping the extra 30g for something else, so I chucked it all in.

Would I make it again? Yes I would but perhaps with those modifications.


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