Caponata is one of my Death Row side dishes. This version is an amalgamation of numerous different recipes and methods I’ve read, tried and adapted over the years, rather than one passed down from an Italian nonna. So it’s probably totally inauthentic. The charge sheet starts with the roasting (rather than frying) of aubergines, continues with the use of Romano peppers in a traditionally Sicilian dish, and carries on in the method.
But it does have an awesome balance of sweet and sour and works well with rich, oily foods as well as softer and more subtle ingredients, such as slow-roast lamb shoulder, grilled mackerel and sardines, tuna steaks or baked white fish. It takes a little time, although it’s mostly hands-off and is well worth the wait.
The recipe says it serves six, and it does. But that’s with generous helpings – fingers crossed the cook gets lucky and has leftovers for lunch the next day, when it will taste even better.
3tbs sunflower oil
3tbs olive oil
350g-400g red onions, quartered
4 Romano peppers, halved then cut into 4cm-5cm chunks
400g (5-6 sticks) celery, cut into 3cm lengths
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
50g tinned anchovies in their oil
50g capers, drained
1tsp dried thyme
1tsp dried oregano
700g plum tomatoes, cut into 4cm-5cm wedges
3tbs red wine vinegar
30g demerara sugar
16-20 basil leaves
20g toasted pine nuts (optional)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to its highest temperature (about 250°C). Quarter the aubergines lengthways, then cut across the lengths into 3cm-4cm widths. Pour the sunflower oil into a medium-large roasting tin and put it in the oven for five minutes to heat up. Remove the tin and add the aubergine pieces, carefully shuffling them to coat with hot oil, then roast for 15-20 minutes or until they brown and shrivel a bit.
Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Add the onions and fry for 3-4 minutes, allowing the cut edges to brown just a little. Add the peppers and celery and cook for a further 10 minutes, or until softened. Turn the heat down to low, add the garlic and cook gently for three minutes more. Roughly chop the anchovies and add them to the pan with their oil, along with the drained capers and herbs. Remove from the heat.
Remove the aubergines from the oven and tip them into a bowl, then turn the oven down to 160°C. Transfer the contents of the frying pan to the roasting tin. Layer the aubergines on top and the tomatoes on top of them, then drizzle with the vinegar and sprinkle with sugar so it coats the tomatoes.
Return to the bottom shelf of the oven and bake for one hour. The tomatoes will dry and intensify and the other vegetables will soften and sweeten.
Remove from the oven, stir the vegetables and let them sit and absorb the sweet-and-sour juices for at least an hour, if not overnight. Patience is a virtue here.
Add the basil and the pine nuts, if using, just before serving. I like to eat this at room temperature, but you could gently reheat it.
Recipe taken from On the Side by Ed Smith. Photography by Joe Woodhouse