Caponata – Calabrese Style

When I was young we used to spend summers in Calabria, Southern Italy, where my father is from.  He was the youngest of 9 children, 6 of whom were girls.  His older sisters all used to fight over who we would stay with during our holiday, as most of them had had a hand in bringing him up and treated him almost as a son.  We used to try and divide our time up with the various families, but my happiest memories were of staying with my Zia Santa.

Grazie Zia - ti voglio bene

When I mentioned this once to someone in the UK they asked me if it was strange having an aunt named after Santa Claus.  How bizarre, I thought, it had never once crossed my mind that her name might sound unusual to anyone else.  In Italian Santa is a female saint, or a “blessed one”.  My Zia Santa was indeed a saint, she had a hard life and lived in very basic simplicity for the whole of her married and then widowed life.  But we loved being with her.  She had one bedroom where my parents slept in her huge dark wood framed bed with my younger brother on a fold out bed.  Her bathroom only had a toilet and a sink where she also washed all her clothes.  The only other room was a large living, dining, kitchen area which looked onto the main street of the little village, called Longobardi.  I slept here with my aunt, her on a bed and me on a mattress – and every night we would giggle together like two little schoolgirls rather than an aunt and niece who were separated in age by over 40 years.

There was a small balcony which served as the telephone. If people wanted to give you a message they stood in the street and whoever was nearest the window stood there and took the message.  Likewise, if you wanted to let a neighbour know some news, all you had to do was stand on the balcony and tell a passer-by.  You were in no doubt that the message would reach its recipient almost as instantly as an e-mail or text nowadays.

Zia Santa was an incredible cook.  August was always taken up with drying tomatoes on her flat roof, or bottling tomatoes to go into the huge storage area on the ground floor.  It never struck me as odd that there was this enormous space downstairs that could have been converted into a bathroom, bedroom, laundry room…whatever.  It was more important back then to have a good space to store the cheese, salami, prosciutto, olive oil and tomatoes for winter.

I´m trying to write down all the recipes that Zia Santa taught me, my mother and, some years, my English grandmother to cook.  Today it´s Caponata.  I had to call my mum to ask her what the special ingredient was.  Our family caponata was never the same as any other I´ve tasted.  I´m sure there are thousands of family recipes, each one different from the other.  This is ours.

  • About 1kg of aubergines (eggplant, melanzane) finely chopped and salted, then left to drain for about 30 minutes then rinsed and patted dry
  • Olive oil – plenty for frying
  • 1 onion finely chopped
  • 3 sticks of celery finely chopped
  • 4 tablespoons of red wine vinegar (although I used white as that´s what we have here and it was delicious)
  • About 500g of ripe tomatoes peeled and finely chopped
  • Up to 2 tablespoons of sugar
  • About a quarter of a cup each of chopped capers and chopped stoned olives (black or green)
  • Seasoning
  • The grated zest of half an orange – the secret ingredient!

Fry the aubergine chunks (which in all other recipes I´ve seen is left much chunkier).  Zia Santa used to deep fry, I shallow fry.  The choice is yours.  Set them aside when they are browned and soft.

Now add the onion and celery to the pan with more oil if necessary and fry with the lid on until soft and translucent.  Turn up the heat and add the vinegar and allow it to reduce almost completely. Turn the heat back down and add the tomatoes, seasoning and about half the sugar and simmer for about 15 minutes or so or until the celery is tender but still retains a little crunch.  Stir in the aubergines, olives, capers and orange zest and taste.  It should be “agrodolce” sweet and sour – add the rest of the sugar if necessary and allow it to dissolve.

This dish is best served the next day and will sit quite happily in your fridge for several days.  We used to eat it at room temperature as part of the antipasto but it´s also good as a side dish.

And don´t forget, do shout out of the window to let me know if you enjoyed it!

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52 thoughts on “Caponata – Calabrese Style

  1. I’m very jealous of your Calabrian summers – I think your aunt was right about the importance of food storage space and great recipe too 😉

    1. They were wonderful times and I have so many happy memories. I think I am turning into my aunt as I am doing all the same things now (storing my summer food for winter)!

  2. I am so looking forward to this, your descriptions of staying with your aunt .. Oh I would have loved to be there too.. and all that food and storage space! i am so impressed.. tell me MORE! ok Now i will go back and look at the recipe.. c

    1. Thanks so much Cecilia – I guess we are both lucky to have some treasured memories we can share. Hope you like the recipe, we think it´s pretty special with the “secret” ingredient!

  3. This looks awesome. My husband doesn’t like eggplant, but I might just get him to eat it if it’s mixed up with all these other things (particularly the capers and olives, which are his favorites!). Thanks and love to hear a little family history tales!

    1. My Big Man doesn´t like aubergine either, so I just didn´t tell him the first time I made it and he raved about it and requests this frequently! Honestly, they can be worse than children sometimes…

  4. Wonderful memories and the recipe sounds delicious – I’m going to make this with some aubergines I’ve just picked. I’ll shout from the balcony when I’ve tasted it! And what a good idea to write down all your aunt’s recipes – they’re something that shouldn’t be lost with time.

    1. You are the Queen of Aubergines – hope you enjoy it! My dad is so pleased that I´m making sun dried tomatoes and preserving them like my aunt did. Will have to do a pasta one soon!

  5. I’ve never heard of this dish before but it sounds delicious. I’ll have to ask my wife Liz about it as she is the Italian one…I’m just the Kraut in the family. 😉

  6. Tanya, how lucky you were to have so many aunts and such wonderful memories!! It goes to show you material things are just that and it’s the people and family that touch your lives that make it so special. This recipe is very similar to what I would make; sounds absolutely perfect!

    1. It´s so true and although I know I did enjoy and appreciate my times with my family when I was a child, I think when I look back now and remember them again I appreciate them even more. Thanks for your lovely words!

  7. How can I not have tried Caponata before now. It looks truly amazing. And what treasured memories you have of it. I shall try this and raise a glass to your Zia Santa. She sounds a wonderful and inspirational woman.

  8. How lucky you were to spend your summers in Calabria! Zia Santa sounds very special and it’s easy to see why you enjoyed staying with her. Your family’s caponata sounds really good and I can’t wait to try it. Thanks, Tanya, for sharing both the recipe and a little bit more about yourself.

    1. It was also a great summer for us and I was lucky with my relations 🙂 Isn´t it gret that we all have these family recipes, but they´re all just a little bit different?!

  9. I loved this story, I could actually see myself shouting over the balcony! It’s been too long since I’ve been to Italy, I love the food soooo much. Your Zia’s sundried tomatoes were such a hit in this house that I will definitely be trying the caponata with the orange peel, sounds lovely!!

  10. Lovely story ans delicious caponata alla Calabrese!! Caponata is the kind of recipe that is passed by one generation to another. You are so lucky to have an aunt who gave you this amazing recipe— with orange zest (wow!!). Thanks for sahring Chica!!

  11. Just a shout from the balcony – I made the caponata and it was wonderful. The orange zest adds a delicious flavour to the other delicious flavours in the recipe. We’ve just eaten it for lunch alongside suppli/arancini, croquettes made with leftover risotto and cheese……a great combination.

    1. Am listening from the street! Am so pleased you liked it (and my mum will be thrilled too when I tell her). Love arancini too – many happy memories of eating those as a sneaky snack on the way back from the beach as a child 🙂

  12. Scrumptious!!! This seems like it would make a wonderful “relleno” for mushrooms or bell peppers, and looks just as wonderful on its own! My grandmother’s name is also Santos, and all of us grandchildren grew up calling her Mamita Santos because she doesn’t like the sound of “abuela”, heheh. She was named this because she was born on November 1st, which is Dia de los Santos. This is really cool – I had no idea your father was Italian! Do you speak Italian as well?

    1. Aah – what a lovely name, Mamita Santos! Yes, I speak (now rusty) Italian. It used to be fluent, but since moving to Spain it gets mixed up with the Spanish 😦 Still understand it perfectly though, which is great! My parents speak Italian to my Big Man and he answers in Spanish – they seem to understand each other ok!

  13. This is a great story. It’s priceless, it’s yours, and it’s great that you’re sharing it. And as long as you save/share your aunt’s recipe, you’ll celebrate foreverness.

  14. You are lucky to have had such an amazing childhood
    I love eggplant and this recipe sounds amazing with all those yummy ingredients
    I’ll be shouting out the window soon to let you know how it went

  15. i really like your food pictures and want to invite you to try out tastingspot.com. it’s for anyone that just wants another place to submit photos and share it will other foodies. It’s still in beta version, but would love for you to start adding some photos and help get it going.

  16. Such a lovely family memory – thank you for sharing with us! I have a cousin named Santa, in Afrikaans it’s pronounced ‘Sunta’. Thanks for the recipe – it’s on my ‘must make’ list… 🙂

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