Back, recently, from a trip to Naples, where despite the pungent cheese shops, the dripping, writhing fish stalls, the oily black coffee, the dangerously rich ice-cream, the puffy delights of deep-fried pizza, the foods that really stick in the mind are the vegetables. (Well, the stewed tripe was pretty memorable, but that’s another story.) Like Sicily, Naples has always been poor, and even flour might be too expensive, especially once those polenta-eaters up north had got a taste for pasta. So the Neapolitans, derided as leaf-eaters (a lot of Italian regional prejudice seems to revolve around food), had to fall back on what they had – which, luckily, was an astonishing abundance of fruit and vegetables. The British version of Italian food has tended to focus on pasta, and the meat-and-cheese-and-olives side of antipasti – all delicious, of course, but they give a somewhat lopsided impression of the cuisine. The Southern love for bitter greens – at one meal, we had the Neapolitan signature, friarelli, as well as braised escarole and fiercely grilled radicchio (not green, true, but you get the idea) – is starting to make an impression here, which is good. It suits our vegetables, as well as the small-plate style a lot of newer Italians are turning to. The ubiquitous vegetable antipasti are perhaps a little naffer, but still worth checking out. No-one’s going to get excited about a roast pepper, but that doesn’t mean it’s not nice to eat.
A lot of this, though, does rely on the afore-mentioned astonishing abundance of fruit and vegetables, which, in most cases, are significantly better and significantly cheaper than you can get in Britain. In Naples, they pretty much give away that roast pepper – dressed heavily in oil, sprinkled with capers – which here would be ruinously expensive. So you get the slightly unpleasant spectacle of new London restaurants offering up cucina povera at new London prices – and doing it rather badly, because the raw materials weren’t good enough to start with. If your pepper isn’t beautiful, do something else with it – and accept that that something might not be especially cheap. Why should it be? It’s not YOUR peasant cuisine. Feel free to live on turnips and gruel. Anyway, for a dish that relies slightly less on freshness and quality (slightly, mind you), as well as appealing to the deep British love for sweet pickles, you could do a lot worse than caponata. I think originally Sicilian, we had this in Naples too, and it ticks a lot of Southern boxes – the vegetables, the sweet-and-sour flavours, the prodigal use of olive oil – though I warn you again that it won’t be very cheap. Buy the veg from a market or greengrocer, and the oil in large quantity from a wholefood shop, and you’ll lessen the burden slightly. Supermarkets seem to conspire against this kind of food.
This is a very Italian, high-summer caponata – they change the vegetables according to the season, little artichokes being a particular favourite. The only real constant is the agrodolce, sharp-sweet sauce. Feel free to sub in more ‘British’ veg (a glut of courgettes might find a home here) as you wish.
Makes a lot, but keeps well under its oil.
4 large mild onions, finely diced
6 cloves of garlic, sliced
1 red chilli, sliced
6 large vine tomatoes, diced, skins and seeds and all
200ml red wine vinegar
3-4 tbsps sugar or honey
Juice of two lemons
A handful of capers
A handful of raisins
4 aubergines, chopped into little dice
1 head of celery, trimmed and chopped into chunks
Chopped mint and parsley
Salt, pepper, and LOTS of olive oil
Make the sauce first. Sweat the onion, garlic and chilli (tuck in the vine from the tomatoes as well) in a hefty glump (bigger than a glug) of oil, until soft and nearly turning brown, then add the diced tomatoes and a pinch of salt and cook down to a mush. Stir together the vinegar, sugar (or honey) and lemon juice, then add that too and boil down a little. Taste – at this point it should be too sweet and too sour, without enough salt to balance it. That comes later. Stir in the capers and raisins.
Put the diced aubergine in a colander and toss with a big pinch (about a tablespoon) of Maldon’s salt. Leave to drain for about half an hour. (This is NOT to get rid of ‘bitter juices’, but to lightly break down its spongy texture, drying it slightly and making it absorb less oil. It makes quite a difference.)
Meanwhile, heat another glump of oil in a frying pan and sauté the celery, in batches, until nicely browned. Scoop out with a slotted spoon (although you’ll probably still need to top the oil up) and chuck straight into the sauce. Do the same with the aubergines – which will need even more oil – when they’re ready.
Let the whole thing simmer for about ten minutes, then stir in the herbs (a good handful of each) and leave to cool to a warm room temperature, then check the seasoning. It might need a bit more salt, but there’s a lot on the aubergines. Eat with white bread and wine, and get it down your shirt. Get angry and go for a nap. You’re on holiday.