Caponata with Cinnamon Basil Flowers

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

Caponata is a Sicilian vegetable stew made from aubergines. When made well, it exceptionally tasty. It can also be used as a pasta sauce.

Caponata is a 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

1 tsp ground cumin

1/2 tsp cinnamon

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 dried herbs from Casanova and Daughters in Covent Garden. I found oregano and basil flowers the day I visited. The herbs come in paper-wrapped, tied bundles of dried stems complete with leaves and flowers. The little paper packages are very evocative, rather like a small and tight bouquet of dried flowers. Gently untwisting and sniffing the contents reveals a powerful scent of the particular herb. The basil flowers come in two varieties: one scented with lemon the other with cinnamon. The cinnamon version is a revelation, the distinct combination of both basil and cinnamon is so unexpected it brings a smile to the face.

I can think of many things that will go with the lemon basil flowers, as in my goat’s cheese bruschetta, or almost any pasta dish, especially any made with fish. However, I’ve been intrigued by the cinnamon version and wondered where it might best be used. A shortbread biscuit seems like a good idea for either basil flower herb, but I also wondered about savoury options. With Sicily’s rich history, its cuisine has taken many influences including Moorish cuisine. One distinctive element of Moorish cooking is the use of cinnamon and cumin. So I decided to adapt caponata, a classic Sicilian recipe, with cinnamon basil flowers.

How Dad Cooked It

Ask Inspector Montalbano, a good caponata is food of Gods. Unfortunately, it is all too easy for a caponata to fall down from its heavenly ceiling to a very ordinary and earthly mush. There is a good parallel here in the animated film Ratatouille. The film captured – with a little 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 to cook ingredients separately and then bring together at the end to gently mingle and meld…

  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 that aubergines have been cultivated to no longer need purging of bitter juices. Further, I am never convinced about adding extra salt to an ingredient – it complicates the seasoning. Finally, soaking aubergines 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, and chop the celery into a small dice. Chop the tomato into 15mm cubes, 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. 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 least 20 minutes. Drain the onions and reserve the oil.
  4. Whilst the onions 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 passata, water, vinegar, sugar and spices and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat. Add the capers and raisins and simmer for 2 minutes. Then add the tomatoes, 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 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, the remaining basil leaves and about another teaspoon of basil flowers. Serve with bread.

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