is the author most recently of Two Kitchens: Family Recipes From Sicily and Rome. Rachel's first book, Five Quarters, won the Andre Simon Food Book award in 2015, as well as the Guild of Food Writers' First Book award. She writes an award-winning weekly column in Guardian Cook. Rachel has lived in Testaccio, a distinctive working-class quater of Rome, for over twelve years. She shares a small flat near the food market with her partner Vincenzo and son Luca and spends part of the year in Vincenzo's family house in Gela, Sicily.
Photo Credit: Rachel Roddy
Every morning of the week except Sunday, Vincenzo’s grandmother Sara would wake at five o’clock to put the coffee on. By the time it was ready, her husband, Orazio, would have woken, washed and dressed as he always did, in black trousers. He would drink his coffee and eat a piece of bread before picking up a package and going downstairs. Until the early 1960s, the basement was a stable for his mule, Giuseppina, and later—once his eldest son, Tot., learned to drive—a home for the tractor that would take them both to the land they rented on the edge of the province. They would arrive in the field at about 6 o’clock and work until 10 o’clock, at which point he would open the package, which contained bread, tuna, caponata that Sara had made, and a litre of his own wine.
Like her grandmother and mother before her, Sara made great quantities of caponata, the quintessential Sicilian stew. It’s a dish that makes absolute sense in Sicily: the abundance of aubergines, the home-made tomato sauce that families still put aside each year, plentiful celery, olives, and capers, the sweet-and-sour presence of sugar and vinegar about flavour as well as conserving. Like any dish made according to a family recipe shaped by necessity, there are as many versions as cooks. I make caponata often, both in Rome and London; it translates well anywhere. Like so much traditional Italian cooking, the key is choosing the right ingredients and practice: tasting and trying again and again, adjusting the quantities to your own taste, until you have a version you really like. It’s important to fry the aubergines in plenty of hot oil (I use extra virgin olive oil); the cubes should dance around the pan until golden. The finished dish needs to rest for at least an hour, ideally three. It’s even better the next day, and keeps well in the fridge for up to four. Traditionally it would have been kept for much longer, and thus contained far more vinegar; it was bottled and put aside for the winter, more like a relish or pickle.
In my modern version, inspired by Sara and my friend (and food writer) Fabrizia Lanza, the ingredients are distinct but united by a sauce rich with, but not overwhelmed by, tomato. I particularly like caponata as part of a picnic-style lunch with tuna, bread and wine. It has an affinity with roast meat, particularly lamb. It’s also good stirred into pasta or as the filling for a savoury tart.
extra-virgin olive oil, or whatever oil you prefer to fry in
4 celery stalks
75g capers, ideally packed in salt
150g olives (use your favourite type; I like black Gaeta olives)
1 large red onion
200ml tomato sauce or good-quality passata
75g raisins (optional)
50g pine nuts (optional)
50–75ml red wine vinegar
a small handful of basil leaves (optional)
Cut the aubergines into 1–2cm cubes. Heat about 5cm oil in a small, deep, heavy-based frying pan until hot. Fry the aubergines in batches—do not crowd the pan—until golden brown, then drain on kitchen paper, sprinkle with salt and set aside. The oil can be strained and used to fry again.
Trim the celery stalks of any tough ends or strings and cut in half. Bring a small pan of water to the boil, add the celery and cook until tender but still with bite—usually about 5 minutes. Drain. Once cool enough to handle, chop the celery into 1cm chunks and set aside. If the capers are salted, soak them for a couple of minutes, then drain them. If they are in brine or vinegar, drain and rinse them. Pit the olives.
Slice the onion thickly. In a large, deep frying pan, warm 4 tablespoons oil over a medium-low heat, add the onion and cook until soft and translucent. Add the celery, stir and cook for a minute or two. Add the tomato sauce and cook for another 2 minutes before adding the capers, olives, raisins and pine nuts and stirring again.
Make a well in the middle of the pan and add the sugar and the vinegar to it, allowing the sugar to dissolve in the heat. Stir and cook for a minute or two, tasting to see if it needs more sugar or vinegar. Turn off the heat, add the aubergines and rip the basil into the pan. Stir the mixture gently so that the aubergine remains in nice distinct pieces. Leave to sit for at least 2 hours, or better still several, turning gently once or twice.