The Italian (and specifically Sicilian) version of ratatouille could be classed as a summer salad. It’s best eaten at room temperature, when all the flavours show to their best advantage both separately and together. But it is also ready to do duty as a hearty winter stew, when I serve it on a thick slice of foccaccia that soaks up the juices.

In Italy it is often served with bread as a starter, as part of a spread of antipasti.

Caponata differs from ratatouille in the preparation, as the main ingredients (in true Italian fashion these vary from region to region but most agree on aubergine and courgette), are cooked separately and then added in to the tomato base sauce.

The caponata is also a good lesson in seasoning, as the capers, sultanas, olives and vinegar layer up flavours of sweet, sour and savoury (agrodolce). Anchovies are optional, they cook down in the sauce and are only noticeable in the finished dish as a deep, umami base note.

I was inspired to make this when I saw the gorgeous striped ‘graffiti’ aubergines at my local fruit and veg shop. Their pale interior prevents the finished caponata from becoming dark brown sludge. Alongside some bright yellow courgettes, and next to the new season garlic and startlingly red plum tomatoes, the answer to the question ‘what’s for dinner tonight?’ was obvious.

As much as I like bell peppers, I find them too intrusive in this dish – I prefer them in a peperonata, as stars of their own show. So I leave them out, as appealing as they are on the summer vegetable shelf.

Ingredients

Serves 6

1 large or 2 smaller aubergine – washed, cut into large chunks and salted in a colander for 1 hour (this is not to extract bitter juices, but to draw off some of the moisture and intensify the flavour)

1 large or 2 smaller courgettes – washed, sliced into 3cm thick rounds, salted in a (separate) colander for 1 hour

1 large red onion, diced

4 cloves garlic, cut in slivers

3 sticks celery, diced

Fresh herbs – I used oregano but you could add basil, mint or shredded sage leaves (in winter use dried oregano)

1kg really ripe tomatoes.  Cut a shallow slit in the bottoms, place in a heat-proof bowl and cover in boiling water for 20-30 seconds. Peel and chop. (in winter replace with a tin of chopped tomatoes).

1 cup olives (green or black, choose ones you like), pitted

3 tablespoons brined capers

50g golden sultanas or raisins, covered in boiling water and soaked for 15 minutes

6 salted anchovies (optional)

1-2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Vegetable oil for frying (sunflower is best)

50ml Olive oil for cooking

Extra-virgin olive oil for dressing

 

Method

Start by making the tomato sauce. In a large saucepan heat the olive oil and add the chopped onion and celery. Cook over a medium heat until the vegetables are translucent and starting to colour. Add the garlic and cook for one minute, then add the chopped tomatoes, anchovies (if using) and fresh herbs. Add a few tablespoons of water, turn the heat down to low and simmer, stirring occasionally.

Drain and rinse the salted veg and dry on kitchen paper. Heat 4-5cm of oil in a heavy-based saucepan or deep frying pan (keep the lid close to hand for safey). Test if the oil is hot enough by dropping in one piece. If it sizzles and floats to the top it’s ready!
Fry the aubergine and courgette in batches, draining on kitchen paper as you go. Give them a few minutes on each side and flip them carefully, you want them to just cook through and colour but not collapse. Save the used oil in a glass jar and use for cooking in savoury dishes.
Add the fried vegetables to the tomato base, add the olives, capers and drained sultanas.
Give everything a good stir, then add 1 tablespoon of red wine vinegar, a teaspoon of sea salt and a good grind of black pepper. Stir again and allow to simmer for 15 minutes.
Taste and adjust the seasoning, then turn off the heat and let it rest as it cools down. In a heavy-bottomed pan it will retain heat for a few hours.
Just before serving, drizzle with special extra-virgin olive oil (preferably Italian) and sprinkle with fresh basil, mint or oregano for a tableside flourish.

I served mine with pan-fried duck breast but this works well with charcuterie, white fish, roasted meats or poultry, as a bbq side dish, on it’s own as a dip with chunky bread or for breakfast with a fried egg.

 

© Linda Galloway 2020