I have never been that fond of meat. My mother still tells a story about me, aged three or four, when we had steak for dinner. She called it a fettina, a slice of beef, pounded with a mallet until it was thin and tender, pan fried with garlic and white wine. Mamma would cut it into bite sized pieces for me on my plate next to a pile of patate con la sivola – or cipolla in Italian (a type of smashed potatoes with onion and olive oil) and salad. I would eat the potatoes and salad, then take my time and chew through a few pieces of steak, then carefully hide the rest either under my plate or throw them on the floor, pushing them into a corner with my shoes when I climbed off the chair at the end of the meal. I would invariably get found out (as we didn’t have a dog to feed the pieces to) and an appropriate punishment doled out, like missing out on dessert. But I really didn’t like meat, and nothing would convince me to eat more than a few pieces. Things haven’t changed that much; at home we eat mainly vegetarian, with occasional fish, and a bit of pancetta or pork sausage for flavouring. If mamma makes her meat sugo or meatballs, she will give me a portion to take home when I visit and I will get my fortnightly dose of beef. And the occasional salumi of course.
We eat pasta or grains most days and come summer, consume our weight in eggplants. I have many eggplant recipes up my sleeve and eggplant caponata is one of my favourites, with its sweet, sour and salty overtones, and a lovely crunch from the lightly cooked celery pieces. I cannot bear to call it “eggplant stew” as I have seen it called sometimes in English, which makes me think of a murky brown, overcooked and heavy lumpy mass. This caponata is quite the opposite, as firstly, I oven-bake the eggplant pieces. I don’t fry them, as tradition requires; I find that the pieces absorb more oil when fried and it adds to the heaviness of the dish. When baked the pieces tend to retain their shape when stirred in with the other ingredients, making it less “stew-like”.
I love adding a bit of bitter cocoa powder at the same time as the sugar, a trick I learnt from Alfredo LaSpina at Bar Idda. It adds a depth to the flavour which I initially couldn’t put my finger on when I ate the caponata at Bar Idda; Mark doesn’t like the cocoa though, so it really comes down to tastes . My recipe is based on Fabrizia Lanza’s version in “Coming home to Sicily”; I especially love the hard-boiled egg segments scattered on top, making it almost a complete meal. It is eaten at room temperature so can be made quite a few hours in advance. I serve the caponata with a side of cecina (a type of chickpea pancake), which goes down really well with my gluten-free friends and frankly, is simple and really delicious. The recipe for cecina is from my cookbook Italian Street Food; it is salty, grilled and pairs well with eggplant, especially in a bread roll where the combination of the two is called cinque e cinque (five and five) – an old-school terms which describes the cost of the roll – 5 lire for the bread and 5 lire for the cecina.
I couldn’t think of a better meat-free and gluten-free summer lunch than caponata and cecina; and of course it doesn’t have to be alcohol free – to complete the experience, serve it with a glass or two of a Sicilian wine, such as a Carricante grown on the slopes of Mount Etna.
Sicilian eggplant caponata
1 large eggplant (about 450g), cut into 2-3 cm diced
1/2 head celery, inner stalks only (about 130g), cut into bite sized pieces, leaves reserved
1/2 large red onion, peeled and sliced into rings
1 dried red chilli, finely chopped
30g (2 tbsp) salted capers, soaked in water and drained
75g Sicilian green olives, pitted and cut in half or thirds
125ml (1/2 cup) tomato passata (I used Mutti “Polpa”)
2 tbsp (30ml) white wine vinegar
1-2 tbsp sugar (to taste)
1 -2 tsps dark cocoa powder (optional)
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil plus 2-3 tbsp extra for cooking
3 eggs, hard-boiled, peeled and cut into quarters
salt to taste
Preheat the oven to 180C. Toss the eggplant pieces in 2 tablespoons of EVOO and scatter on about 1 teaspoon of salt, then place on a baking tray in a single layer and bake for 15 minutes or until soft when prodded with a fork. Remove from the oven and set aside.
Heat a small pot with salted water and boil the celery pieces for about 4 minutes or until cooked but with some “bite” left. Drain and refresh under cold water. Set aside.
Heat 2-3 tablespoons of EVOO in a large non-stick frypan and add the onion and chilli, cooking for about 5 minutes until soft and just starting to crisp around the edges. Add the capers, olives, passata, vinegar, sugar and cocoa (if using) and cook for a couple of minutes, until heated through, then add the eggplant pieces, and warm, stirring gently. When warmed through, remove from the heat and place in the serving bowl and allow to cool to room temperature.
Decorate with hard-boiled egg segments and reserved celery leaves, making sure you taste it first to check if salt is needed.
Recipe adapted from “Coming home to Sicily” by Fabrizia Lanza
100g chickpea (besan) flour
½ tsp salt
20 ml plus 10 ml grape seed oil or peanut oil
black pepper for serving freshly ground
Place the chickpea flour in a large bowl and add the water. Using a whisk, mix for a few minutes to get rid of all the lumps of flour that will form. The mixture will froth up quite a bit. Set aside until the froth floats to the top (about 20 minutes) and skim it off, leaving a very liquid dough. Add 20 ml of the oil and the salt and stir with a wooden spoon.
Turn your grill to high. Oil your pan (mine was rectangular 28 cm x 20 cm with low sides) and pour in the liquid dough. Ideally the cecina should be between 1.5 – 2 mm thick – this size pan meant that it was the correct thickness. Place under the grill and cook for 7-8 minutes, watching so that it does not burn. It is cooked when it is crisp and golden on top but soft in the centre. Cut into pieces whilst in the pan and remove. Scatter with salt flakes and pepper. It is best eaten warm.
Recipe from “Italian Street Food”