This caponata pasta is the lighter adaptation of a traditional dish from Sicily which is a true lush vegetarian delight. It would be difficult to define it, because it is simply too good, so essential, yet leaving you with the most fulfilling feeling only a vernacular masterpiece can deliver. Caponata is symphony of warm colours, intense smells and flavours, all mingling with its own ancient history.
The aubergine is the protagonist of this dish, combined with celery, tomatoes, onions, capers, olives, pine kernels, basil, and olive oil, lots of it–as you are supposed to fry the vegetables in it. The whole lot is magically concocted with some sugar and a splash of vinegar. It sounds funny today to think that when aubergines arrived in Sicily with the first Arab invasion they were deemed to be apples that had gone off and carriers of diseases.
The earliest appearance of caponata in Sicily seems to date to the eighteenth century and its origin is of the poorest ones. A renowned local dish used the fish ‘capone’, quite expensive, which was deep fried and served with a sweet-and-sour sauce made with vinegar. The sauce was so delicious that it started to be prepared with aubergines and tomatoes, some of the cheapest and most available vegetables for anyone, especially those that could not afford the capone fish.
Caponata penne (serves 2)
200-250 g penne
100 g sun-dried tomatoes (drained)
30 g pine kernels
1 tbsp of sliced black olives
2 tbsp olive oil
1 garlic clover
1 mozzarella (about 150 g drained)
Gently cook the garlic in a frying pan with 1 tbsp of hot olive oil, till golden. Chop the washed aubergine and cook at mid-high heat for 10 minutes, tossing them now and then. After 5 minutes, add the sliced sun-dried tomatoes and olives. There is no need to add salt or pepper.
After the first ten minutes of cooking, lower the heat to minimum, add the pine kernels, while you put the pasta in salted boiling water–penne usually cook al dente in 11 minutes.
Before the last minute of pasta cooking, take the caponata off the fire and add diced mozzarella. One minute later, drain the pasta, add it to the caponata pan, and mix to let the mozzarella melt.
Serve hot (!), with 1 tbsp of fresh olive oil and a couple of sun-dried tomatoes to decorate. You can also add two leaves of fresh basil if you like to strengthen the bitter flavour.