There are as many ways to make caponata as there are cooks in Italy (and beyond). I know because I’ve read (and re-read) dozens of them. Eggplant, onions and vinegar seem to be the unifying elements in most of the recipes I’ve seen. From there cooks like to get creative. Michael Chiarello adds carrots and potatoes. Yotam Ottolenghi tilts the preparation towards Middle Eastern flavors with olives and harissa. Dominica Marchetti pre-salts to drain the eggplant. There are deep fried versions and pan-fried versions. Don’t let the array of recipes exhaust you. You’ll never find that one/true/authentic version. Everyone makes it the way they make it and so should you.
However, just in case you’re interested, I’ll give you my take on this classic Sicilian condimento.
The key to caponata for me is to keep it simple. Which isn’t to say caponata should be rushed. Taking the time to brown the eggplant on all sides in very hot oil will enrich its flavor and ensure a creamy texture. A good caponata is an example of what the Italians call agrodolce: “agro” (sour) and “dolce” (sweet). Therefore very good vinegar is key. I like the richness balsamic vinegar brings to caponata. However, all on it own balsamic can be a bit cloying – an additional splash of red wine vinegar brings the astringency my palate requires.
Nancy Silverton makes a particularly rich version at Pizzaria Mozza here in Los Angeles. I’ve used her recipe as the basis of mine. The only flourishes in my version are orange zest to finish the dish and a pinch of cocoa powder as suggested by Mario Batali. Which doesn’t make the caponata chocolatey, but it does add further richness and an indefinable depth. He also suggests cinnamon, but that’s a flourish too far for my taste.
Caponata is great warm or at room temperature, and it always tastes better after a day or two. I usually serve caponata as part of a antipasti spread, but it makes a great sauce for pasta or Sicilian couscous. It’s also delicious with sharp and/or salty cheese: try smearing it over rustic bread with a good crumble of aged pecorino. GREG