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Cooking lessons from Rome

Variation on a traditional dish

Sicilian caponata is similar to southern French ratatouille. Sicilian caponata is similar to southern French ratatouille. (food styling/lisa falso; Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Judith Barrett
Globe Correspondent / March 18, 2009

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Within a day of arriving in Rome this year, Lia Petrella, a neighbor in our apartment house, was at our door with a gift from her kitchen - a jar of her homemade caponata. A native of Catania on the west coast of Sicily, but a Rome resident for many years, Petrella is enthusiastic about la cucina Italiana in general, but she is effusive about her native cucina Siciliana. Caponata is one of her favorite dishes from home.

This stew of eggplant and other vegetables is always prepared agrodolce, sweet and sour, that comes from the addition of both sugar and vinegar. But like so many traditional dishes, there seem to be an infinite number of caponata variations. Most commonly the savory mixture contains tomatoes, capers, and black and/or green olives along with the eggplant. Petrella's recipe includes potatoes. In Palermo, and other northern Sicilian areas, fish and/or anchovies are included. In addition, caponata ingredients might be pignoli nuts, raisins, red and/or green bell peppers, even wild asparagus or carrots.

Recently Petrella gave me a caponata demonstration in her kitchen. She stresses the importance of cooking the eggplant separately and adding it in near the end so the flavors of the individual ingredients remain distinct. Eggplant tends to be sponge-like and soaks up the flavors of whatever it's cooked with. Another cooking instruction is Petrella's technique for adding the sugar and vinegar. After all the ingredients have been combined, she stirs both sugar and white wine vinegar into the pot and simmers the caponata for two to three minutes, just long enough to cook away the vinegar's harsh taste.

Sicilian caponata is similar to southern French ratatouille; both are stews of eggplant and other vegetables. And like ratatouille, caponata is served as a side dish with roast meat or grilled fish. To my taste, caponata is best on its own, served as a first course, or as an entree for lunch, with some lightly dressed greens on the side.