Caponata is a Sicilian antipasto dish made primarily from tomatoes, eggplant, onions and various other vegetables cooked in olive oil. It’s traditionally served at room temperature alongside salads, fish, or on its own as a relish. The ingredients tend to vary from cook to cook and region to region; it is often a mish-mosh of ingredients from the produce drawer. There is an unusual version called Caponata San Bernardo that combines eggplant with a sauce of dark chocolate, toasted breadcrumbs, almonds, sugar, vinegar, and sometimes even anchovies!
Originally caponata was made with squid, celery and eggplant topped with a sweet and sour sauce. It was served in the shops and taverns around Sicily’s ports, where it may have derived its name from the Latin word for tavern, caupo. It is also believed to have Spanish origins, possibly gaining its name from the Catalan word caponada and first appearing in the Sicilian vocabulary around 1709. The root of the word caponada is capón, related to capón de galera, a gazpacho-like dish similar to caponata that was served aboard ships. Some gastronomes believe that it may have been a mariner’s breakfast due to the large amounts of preserving vinegar used, which would allow it the long shelf life necessary for an ocean voyage. One characteristic trait of caponata is that they are always sweet and pungent, a strongly flavored counterpoint to other dishes on the table. A good caponata is sweet, tart, spicy and complex with layers of flavor.
Which brings us to my latest side dish recipe, Caponata-Style Green Beans. I feel like green beans can be somewhat boring, unless you know just how to dress them up. Here I’ve pan-seared young, thin green beans until just tender, then topped them with a simple, Italian-inspired caponata sauce. Most caponatas include eggplant, but in this version tomatoes take center stage, providing a saucy accent to the green beans. This dish is great for the holidays because you can make the caponata ahead—in fact, it will taste better after a night in the fridge. Pan-searing the green beans only takes a few minutes (be sure to use young thin beans, not the thicker ones), and you can warm up the sauce just before serving. Serve the delicate green beans topped with warm caponata for an elegant presentation. A sprinkling of toasted pine nuts completes the dish; if you have a nut allergy or are watching your budget, you may omit them.
This caponata can also be used as a topping for fish, crackers, or to make a delicious mozzarella crostini… there are so many possibilities! Have you ever tried caponata?
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- 3 tbsp olive or grapeseed oil, divided (for Passover use olive oil)
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced small
- 4 cloves garlic, sliced
- 14.5 oz tomatoes, diced and peeled (1 can)
- 2 1/2 tbsp white balsamic vinegar
- 2 1/2 tbsp golden raisins
- 1 1/2 tbsp honey or agave nectar (for vegan use agave)
- 1/8 tsp crushed red pepper
- 1 1/2 tbsp fresh oregano, roughly chopped
- 1 tbsp fresh parsley, roughly chopped
- 1 lb fresh green beans, trimmed
- 2 tsp pine nuts, toasted (for garnish)
- Wash and trim green beans, set aside. Peel and dice onion. Slice garlic. In a pan, sauté onions in 1 1/2 tbsp olive or grapeseed oil. Cook until soft and slightly translucent. Add the garlic and continue to cook till fragrant; don't let the garlic burn.
- Add canned tomatoes, vinegar, raisins, honey, crushed red pepper and a pinch of salt. Stir.
- Cook down until most of the liquid has been reduced, about 15-20 minutes. Stir in the oregano and parsley. Remove from heat.
- Heat a sauté pan over medium high heat. Once hot add green beans, 1 ½ tbsp olive or grapeseed oil and a pinch of salt. Cook the beans for a few minutes, stirring frequently, until tender crisp. They should be bright green with a lightly charred exterior and be tender, but not soft. Transfer to a serving plate.
- Using the same pan you used to cook the green beans, toast pine nuts over medium heat until lightly toasted and golden.
- Spoon caponata topping over the cooked green beans. Garnish with toasted pine nuts.
Herbst, Sharon Tyler (2001). The New Food Lover’s Companion. Barron’s Educational Series, Inc. Hauppauge, NY.
Piras, Claudia (2010). Culinaria Italy: Country. Cuisine. Culture. h.f. ullman, Potsdam, Germany.
Clifford A. Wright: A History of Sicilian Caponata.
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