Rachel Roddy’s recipe for pumpkin caponata

We found a pumpkin in the swimming pool car park one day last summer. My son spotted it and, thinking it was a toy half hidden in the leaning bamboo that marks the end of the plot, ran to get it. For a moment, I thought he’d found a mannequin limb, a short leg or a long arm, and yelled at him to put it back. But it was too late; the extremely long, putty-coloured pumpkin was running towards me, and the next thing I knew it was in the car and coming home with us. We washed it, measured it (1.2m) and found out it was a zucca lunga, but decided it looked like a lute crossed with a baseball bat. We then came up with fantastical reasons as to why it was in a swimming pool car park, before balancing it on the top of the cupboard. That was two months ago now, and every couple of days it catches my eye, a strange souvenir from the summer, and hints at what to cook.

Although not the souvenir, but rather something bought from Marco on Testaccio market, who grows and sells different varieties of pumpkins and squashes (all of which he calls zucca) that sit like people on a bench on the shelf at the back of his stall. There seems no urgency about pumpkins and squashes. It’s as if they know their longevity, that they will be great the next day or in two months, so they can sit back while other more desperate vegetables vie for attention. All that changes when they are cut and flash their orange insides – then they do demand attention. Whether that’s sliced and baked, or made into soup or a puree, or stirred into a risotto or fried for caponata.

Caponata, die agrodolce Sicilian dish, is most commonly made with aubergine as the main element, supported by celery, onion, tomato, kappertjies, olives, sugar and vinegar (plus variations). Tradisioneel, it was a summer dish, a way of enjoying and dealing with the abundance of aubergines. My Sicilian mother-in-law, whose parents were farmers on the south coast and grew aubergines, talks of how caponata was a persistent presence in the summer. Also of how, as summer drew to an end, her mother would add enough sugar and vinegar that it became a dark, demanding relish and could last into autumn.

The caponata principle does not end with summer, wel, because aubergines, like most things, are available all the time these days, and also because there is a caponata for all seasons: aubergines are replaced by apples or pears in winter, artichokes in spring, and pumpkins or squashes in autumn.

The singularity of aubergines lies in the way they become rich and velvety when fried. Squash and pumpkin are more silky, but much denser, which makes for a different but still brilliant dish, and the celery feels even more essential here. A summer souvenir adapted for autumn, butternut caponata fits in almost everywhere, but is especially good with sausages. Ours is still on top of the cupboard.

Bedien 4-6

Oil, for frying or baking
1kg butternut squash or pumpkin, cut into 1-2cm cubes
4 stalks celery
1 handvol kappertjies, ideally packed in salt
1 handvol olives
1 large red onion, peeled and sliced into half-moons
200ml tomato sauce or passata
50g currants (opsioneel)
30g pine nuts or almonds (opsioneel)
50g sugar
50ml red-wine vinegar

Heat 5cm oil in a small, deep, heavy-based frying pan, then fry the diced squash in batches until golden brown, drain and sprinkle with salt. Alternatively, put the cubes on an oven tray, rub with oil and sprinkle with salt, and bake at 180C (160C waaier)/350F / gas 4 tot goudbruin.

Trim the celery stalks of any tough ends or strings, then cut them in half. Drop the celery into a pan of boiling water and cook for about five minutes, until tender but still with bite. Drain the celery and, once cool enough to handle, chop into 1cm chunks and set aside. If the capers are salted, soak them for two minutes, then drain; if brined or in vinegar, drain and rinse. Pit the olives.

In a large, deep frying pan, warm four tablespoons of oil over a medium-low heat, add the onion and cook, roer, until floppy. Add the tomato sauce and cook for another three minutes, then stir in the capers, olives, currants and nuts.

Make a well in the middle of the pan and add the sugar and vinegar, allowing the sugar to dissolve in the heat. Stir and cook for one to two minutes, tasting to see if it needs more sugar or vinegar. Turn off the heat, add the squash and celery, and stir gently, so the squash remains in distinct pieces. Leave to sit for at least two hours or, better still, several, stirring gently once or twice.

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