We are really enjoying the BBC TV foreign crime series, The Young Montalbano by Andrea Camilleri (the fictional Sicilian detective’s creator) and Francesco Bruni. The Young Montalbano follows the detective from the start of his career at the Vigata police station, a prequel for the earlier aired dramatizations based on Camilleri’s novels and short stories (now available on DVD).
Naturally, our thoughts have turned to our recent visit to Sicily and all the wonderful food we sampled, much of it based on fresh vegetables or fish. Sicilian sardines, in particular, are a favorite of ours and are similar to Cornish sardines (otherwise known as pilchards) that we find at our fishmonger here in Northern England. I love them grilled on the barbecue, stuffed with lemon slices and wrapped in vine leaves.
One evening in Catania, at a family run trattoria called u fucularu (meaning “the hearth” in the local Sicilian dialect) we were offered a wide variety of antipasti dishes laid out on the counter, much like the little dishes of Spanish tapas. Most incorporated aubergine in some form or another. Caponata, naturally, was the star among those on offer, a lovely classic sweet-sour Sicilian dish.
There are many variations, but this recipe is a good basic one. It is best to make this in advance and let it “mature” in the refrigerator for a day or two, bringing it back to room temperature before serving.
Makes about 6 cups (enough for a party)
- 3 small Aubergines (= American Eggplants), approximately 2 lbs total
- 1/4 cup Extra virgin olive oil
- 1 large red onion
- 14 oz. can of plum tomatoes
- 1/4 cup sultanas (= American golden raisins)
- 1/3 cup whole blanched almonds (optional)
- 1/2 cup green olives
- 2 stalks of celery
- 1/2 cup red wine vinegar
- 1/4 cup sugar
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Chopped flat leaf parsley
Peel, trim and cut your aubergine into 1 inch cubes. In a large pot, boil water and blanche the aubergine cubes for two minutes. Drain in a colander, shaking the cubes until they are completely free of the cooking water, set aside on a plate and allow them to cool slightly while you make the sauce. This blanching process removes the slightly bitter taste of the aubergine, partly cooks the vegetable, and avoids the necessity of laboriously salting and letting the cubes site to “weep” in a colander for an hour.
Roughly chop your onion while you heat the olive oil in a large saucepan. Sauté the onion on medium low heat until it is translucent. Purée the plum tomatoes – this makes a “rough and ready” passata (smooth tomato purée without the skin or seeds). Add the passata to the onions and turn up heat. Allow the tomato sauce to cook until it is quite thick (about 10 minutes). Take off heat.
Meanwhile, roughly chop the celery and remove the flesh from the green olives in chunks. Do not be tempted to use conventional bottled olives– most of these are Spanish Manzanilla olives. Use good quality deli olives. Because I have a fondness for Greek olives, I use the green olives from Halkidiki, Northern Greece. Technically not authentic Sicilian, but it more a matter of personal taste.
Add the celery, olives, raisins, almonds, vinegar and sugar to the hot tomato sauce. Season with salt and pepper. The sauce will be quite sharp at this point, but remember you will be adding the rather bland aubergine cubes later. Set this aside.
In a large frying pan, heat more olive oil. Fry the aubergine cubes on medium high heat until quite golden and completely cooked. You may need to add more oil to the frying pan with each batch since aubergine has a tendency to soak up oil.
Add the cooked aubergine to the tomato sauce, stir and let sit. Serve at room temperature with a sprinkling of chopped parsley.