Caponata aside, it’s not been the best of weeks in our kitchen. It’s been pretty dreadful actually, with me limping from one culinary disappointment to the next, cooking up small disasters along the way. It was as if the culinary equivalent of a computer virus infected me, erratic and unexplained behavior, partially deleted memory which left me bereft of some cooking fundamentals, scrambled files and periodic crashes. More than once I decided I couldn’t cook at all, should hang up my apron, kick off my old lady kitchen sandals, pass all culinary duties over to Vincenzo and start a blog about knitting, then I remembered I can’t knit.
It wouldn’t have been so bad if I had been doing some serious experimentation, trying to make some seriously delicate patisserie or salting my own prosciutto. Then I might have been able to stamp my feet, swear in Italian and brush it off as a rather painful learning experience. No, it was bad bad, apart from my first time with a foolproof custard recipe – which isn’t – and some farro salad inprovisation which was stunningly insipid, I fucked up things I thought were in the bag. I bodged things I thought I could do with my eyes closed while balancing on one of those gym balls (joke, I don’t have one, don’t want one.) Roast chicken – yes, I know I posted about the perfect one a while back, it works, it really does, just not in my kitchen last Sunday. Pasta fagoli – made it about 212 times in the last 4 years – worst ever. Fried eggs – ugliest ever, which put me off. Lemon tart, so bad I can’t talk about it.
As I washed- up the unnecessarily numerous pots, pans, dishes I had used to make the failed lemon tart and glimpsed the sad lemony specimen himself sitting on the table desperately – for he knew his fate as well as I did, I decided a week off from all things cooking was in order. THEN I remembered the chicken, the one I had failed so abysmally 2 nights before, the one in the fridge crying ‘at least make a stock of me you bad cook you’ and all the ingredients for caponata I had bought at the market on Saturday, when I was still in the clutches of my virus ridden cooking frenzy, squealing ‘make caponata for Vincenzo, you promised you would when he gave you a lift to work which made him late, you bad girlfriend you’.
By yesterday morning, chicken guilt, other guilt and a sudden craving for caponata had overwhelmed me, 2 cancelled lessons seemed like fate. I tied on my apron, slipped on the granny kitchen shoes, rolled up my sleeves, if there had been any cooking sherry I would have had a slug, but there wasn’t so I sniffed a pritt stick and set about making peace with the whole cooking malarkey before I embarked on my week of rest and repose.
The stock nudged me off to a good start, either my virus had disappeared or it was resting. While the stock was maintaining it’s tremulous simmer, a state I would like to experience one day, I somewhat apprehensively began the caponata, a task which stirs up memories as agrodolce as the caponata itself.
Exactly 4 years ago last Saturday I arrived in Italy, after a week in Naples I left it’s glittering bay on the overnight ferry to Palermo and the next day I ate caponata. I had eaten it before, but it was nothing to the little plateful in a raffish, rough and tumble trattoria nestled in a shabby street near the Vuccuria market, a meltingly delicious confusion. Cubes of deep fried aubergine, fennel, onion, courgette and celery mixed with sultanas and pine-nuts and marinated in a palate startlingly agrodolce of oil, vinegar and a touch of sugar. If the truth be known I cried into my caponata, it wasn’t the caponta as such, even though it was delicious enough to merit a tear, I was crying at my own willful, desperate and sudden lonely flight from London and crying because I knew I had done the right thing however terrifying it felt at that moment. An old man at the next table peered suspiciously over the top of his glasses at the strange English girl sobbing into her lunch. He passed me a tissue and muttered something in incomprehensible Sicilian- but I understood was gentle and sympathetic- before paying his bill and leaving. The comfort of strangers, I cried agrodolce tears all the way back to my hotel.
I knew I had done the right thing.
Vincenzo’s mum Carmella makes us caponata now, whenever we go for dinner a bowl-full is produced especially for me and then a neat little box of leftovers is carefully wrapped for me to take home. Caponata is like a most sublime chutney, we eat it piled on bread with some salty goats cheese, nice salami or best of all some milky, soft mozzarella. A little pile is the perfect bed for a grilled tuna steak, we have it with fried scallops or by the spoonful straight out of the bowl.
This is Carmella’s recipe given shape and disipline by Giorgio Locatelli, whose recipe is almost identical to the one passed down through the Caristia family from Gela in southern Sicily to Rome today.
Oh, in case you were wondering, my caponata was a peaceful and happy one, no disasters, no stamping of feet, I think I may not need that week off now, I am happy in the kitchen again.
There is nothing complicated about making caponata, its all about chopping really, the onion, courgette, aubergine, celery and tomato into pleasing 2cm dice. Attention is vital while you are plunging the vegetables into hot oil and then scooping them out, but after that, you can relax as you lazily stir and taste and stir and adjust and taste again to find an oil, vinegar, sugar agrodolce you are happy with.
It needs a nice long rest, steaming away under some cling film, before you eat it as this is when the fried vegetables transform into a deliciously, meltingly, sweet and sour, soft explosion of flavours.
Inspired by Sicily, then Carmella and given shape by Giorgio Locatelli’s Made in Italy
- 1 large firm aubergine
- olive oil for frying
- 1 mild onion cut into 2cm dice
- vegetable oil for deep frying
- 2 celery stalks cut into 2cm dice
- 1/2 a bulb of fennel cut into 2cm dice
- 1 courgette cut into 2cm dice
- 3 plum tomatoes cut into 2cm dice
- bunch of basil
- 50g sultanas
- 50g pine nuts
- 100ml extra virgin olive oil
- 5tbsp good red wine vinegar
- 2tbsp tomato passata
- 1tbsp caster sugar
- salt and pepper
Cut the aubergine into 2cm cubes, sprinkle with salt and then leave them to drain in a colander for at least 2 hours. Squeeze the cubes gently to get rid of excess water.
Warm some olive oil in a pan and saute the onion until soft and floppy but not brown. Tip the onion into a large bowl.
Put the vegetable oil into a large deep saucepan (no more than 1/3 full) and heat to 180° – a thermometer is pretty vital here. Add the celery and deep fry for about 2 mins until it is tender and golden. remove the celery with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.
Once the oil is back to 180° put in the fennel and cook in the same way as the celery. Repeat with the courgette and then aubergine.
Add all the deep fried vegetables to the bowl with the onion along with the diced tomatoes.
Tear and add the basil leaves an the rest of the ingredients,stir, taste and season well with salt and freshly ground black pepper, stir again.
Cover the bowl with clingfilm while everything is still warm and leave the bowl at room temperature for at least 2 hours so the flavours can steam and mingle and develop while the vegetables cool slowly.
Last thing, it is better the next day and even better the day after that. Keep it in the fridge but pull it out a good hour before you intend to eat it as the cold dulls the flavours.