Caponata with Cinnamon Basil Flowers

  • Time: A couple of hours
  • Serves: 2
  • Level: medium

Caponata will always suffer in a photo because it is basically a vegetable stew made from dark aubergines. I haven’t helped matters by shooting on the wrong white balance by mistake… Still, this should not put you off – as despite appearances, when caponata is made carefully it is exceptionally tasty.

Caponata is Sicilian specialty. I've adapted the recipe to include basil flowers scented with cinnamon.

What you need

1 medium aubergine

1 small or half a large onion

1 medium courgette

1 stick of celery – plus the heart with leaves

200g beefsteak type tomato

3 tbs salted capers

50g raisins

40g pine nuts

8 large pitted green olives

60ml passata

60ml water

2 tbs good sherry vinegar

1 tbs caster sugar

A few torn basil leaves

2 tsp cinnamon basil flowers (from Casanova and Daughters)

Light olive oil

Extra basil flowers as above to serve

Dad's Recipe Tales

I bought some herbs from Casanova and Daughters in Covent Garden. They come in paper-wrapped bundles. These bundles are very evocative, rather like a small and tight bouquet of dried flowers, the top end is simply twisted to keep in the scent. Gently untwisting and sniffing the contents reveals a powerful scent of the particular herb. I bought oregano and two basil flowers, one scented with lemon the other cinnamon. I can think of many things that will go with the lemon basil flowers, as in my goats cheese bruschetta, or almost any pasta dish, especially any made with fish.

The cinnamon version is a revelation. Untwisting and sniffing the bundles reveals both basil and cinnamon. It’s so unexpected it brings a smile to the face. However, I’ve been intrigued about how to use the cinnamon version. I imagine that the Arabian influence on Sicilian cuisine would include cinnamon in savoury dishes, but I cannot see any in the obvious sources for classic Sicilian dishes. So I decided to adapt one such classic, caponata, with cinnamon basil flowers. To be honest the subtle cinnamon is lost when the flowers are cooked, so it is best to season at the table with the herb straight from the bundle.  To do this, untwist the end and turn the bundle upside-down, then roll gently between the palms of the hand. The dried flowers will fall out of the bundle – how cool is that?

How Dad Cooked It

I once thought caponato was the food of Gods, but then I lost faith and the dish slowly descended from its heavenly heights, and transformed into what I thought was an earthy melange of oily and mushy veg. There is a good parallel here in the animated film Ratatouille. The film captured – perhaps with a some exaggeration – how a humble vegetable stew can be elevated to exquisite culinary heights in the hands of the right cook. And, just like the film, I have had my own moment of catharsis after cooking a caponata according to a precise procedure and with the utmost care and attention. The secret for both caponata and ratatouille is not to stew, but cook ingredients separately and then bring together at the end to gently mingle and meld…

For all those who, like me, have lost faith in your caponata – I urge you to atone and try again using the following recipe!

1. Cut the aubergine into 2-3cm chunks. Then soak in water for half an hour. (I do not salt the aubergines – current wisdom indicates our aubergines are bred not to be bitter so they do not need to be purged of bitter juices. Further, I am never convinced about adding so much salt to an ingredient – it makes seasoning unintuitive. Finally, the soaking is a Chinese culinary trick. Pre-soaking before frying does two things: it stops the aubergine taking up too much oil, and it keeps the aubergine in a reasonable plump shape.)

2. Prepare the other ingredients. Chop the onion into a medium dice, cut the courgette into 2 cm chunks, chop the celery into a small dice, separately chop the heart and leaves finely. Chop the tomato into 15mm cubes, separate the pulpy bits from the chunks with skin,  soak the capers in warm water for 15 minutes and rinse, soak the raisins in warm water for 15 minutes, lightly dry fry the pine nuts on medium heat (just the faintest amount of colour – this heating is just intended to freshen the nuts – not toast them). Slice the olives.

3. Fry the onions in a good glug of light olive oil. Start on a high heat and stir, then reduce to a low heat and gently cook until soft and transparent – at leat 20 minutes. Add two tablespoons of water, turn the heat up and fry until the liquid has evaporated. Drain the onions and reserve the oil.

4. Whilst the onion are cooking, use another frying pan to start with the other vegetables. Heat a good couple of glugs of oil in the pan and fry the chopped stick of celery on medium high heat for about 3 minutes. Drain the celery reserving the oil. Return the oil to the pan and fry the courgette on a medium high heat, stir and turn with a spatula until lightly browned in places. Drain the courgettes reserving the oil. Add the reserved oil to the pan and combine with the oil from the onions. Finally, fry the aubergine on a medium high heat until lightly browned, stirring and turning often. Drain the aubergines in a sieve and then place on a few kitchen towels briefly to remove any excess oil (do not leave too long otherwise the juices will also be removed).

5. Using a clean large saucepan with lid, add the pulpy chopped tomato, passata, water, vinegar and sugar and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat. Add the capers and raisins and simmer for 2 minutes. Then add the aubergine, onion, courgette and cooked celery and basil flowers and simmer for 2 minutes. Finally, turn off the heat and add the half the pine nuts, remaining chopped tomato, celery heart and leaves and most of the torn basil leaves. Season and stir. Put the lid on the pan and allow to rest for at least an hour.

6. To serve scatter over the remaining pine nuts, a couple of basil leaves and about another teaspoon of basil flowers. Serve with bread.



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