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Caponata di Pesce -- Fish Caponata

An elegant fish salad from Cavalcanti, one of the great 19th century Neapolitan gastronomes. In the course of his writings he gave several recipes, some of which are extraordinarily elaborate and would require several hours to prepare, assuming one could find all the ingredients he calls for. Though Ms. Francesconi gives one such recipe, she notes that it's now more a historical curiosity than anything else. He also suggested simpler versions, including this one, which she transcribes in her La Cucina Napoletana.

To serve 6

The Freselle:
  • Two whole-wheat freselle (bread, baked in the shape of a donut, which is allowed to dry out completely before it is sold -- these are common throughout South Italy, especially Puglia).
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup white wine vinegar
The Fish:
1 pound boiled fish, whatever you prefer. Pick the flesh from the bones and set it aside.
The Salsa Verde:
  • 2 ounces anchovy filets, boned
  • 1 ounce capers (I prefer salted to pickled), rinsed, soaked briefly in tepid water, and drained well
  • 1 ounce canned tuna (optional)
  • 1 clove garlic
  • Abundant parsley, minced
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • Vinegar or lemon juice, to taste
  • Pepper
  • Salt as necessary
  • Meat broth, if necessary
  • Fresh mint, basil, or thyme (optional)

Combine the solid ingredients and blend them with the olive oil and vinegar and pepper to taste. The consistency of the sauce should be fairly liquid, though not watery; add a little broth if need be. If you chose not to include the tuna, increase the capers and anchovies by a proportionate amount. You can also, if you want a firmer sauce, soak some Italian bread in vinegar, press it dry, and crumble it into the sauce. Keep in mind that the primary ingredient should be in any case parsley, perhaps with a minor addition of other fresh herbs.

The Greens:
  • Escarole -- about a half pound (go by eye), washed and shredded.
  • Lettuce -- about a half pound (go by eye), washed and shredded
Caper Sauce:
  • 5 ounces salted capers, rinsed, soaked briefly in tepid water and drained well
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • Vinegar or lemon juice
  • Salt & Pepper to taste

Blend the capers and the oil, then add lemon juice or vinegar, salt, and pepper to taste.

The Mayonnaise:
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • The juice of a lemon
  • Salt & white pepper to taste

This can be done with a whisk or egg beater, but is much easier to make with a blender.

Lightly beat the yolks, then begin to add the olive oil in a slow stream, beating all the while. The mixture should emulsify and become creamy. When you have beaten in about half the oil, beat in the lemon juice -- the mixture will thin considerably. Slowly add the remaining oil, continuing to beat, until your mayonnaise is fluffy and creamy. Season to taste with a pinch of salt and a little freshly ground white pepper.

You'll find this is much richer than commercially prepared mayonnaise, which usually contains vegetable oil instead of olive oil. If you want to make your mayonnaise zestier, beat in a pinch or so of ground mustard (at the beginning), or perhaps a pinch of horseradish or ground cayenne -- assuming that what you'll be serving it with will go with these flavors. Or try using vinegar instead of lemon juice. With flavored vinegars there's quite a bit of room for personalization.

Finally, the Joy of Cooking notes that mayonnaise won't emulsify well if there's a thunderstorm brewing nearby. I've found they're right.

  • Pitted sweet black olives
  • Anchovy filets
  • Hard-boiled eggs, slivered
  • Tomatoes, sliced
  • Tiny vegetables (sotto aceti), pickled
  • Whatever else attracts

Once you have all the ingredients assembled, proceed:

Dip the friselle in a mixture of water and white wine vinegar, removing them from the bowl when they are damp but not soaked. Crumble them into a mound in the middle of an elegant serving platter.

Divide the boiled fish into three parts and season each with most of one of the sauces.

Dress the escarole and the lettuce with olive oil, salt and pepper.

Lay a first layer of fish over the friselle, pour a little more of the sauce with which you seasoned it over it, and cover with a layer of lettuce and escarole. Cover with a second fish layer and the second of the sauces, then the remainder of the greens. Lay down the third layer of fish -- it should be the mayonnaise fish -- and spread the remaining mayonnaise over everything to produce an elegant white mound. Decorate the mound with the garnishes, and serve.

This will work best, I think, with a crisp white wine whose tartness will balance the mayonnaise. For example, a Greco di Tufo or perhaps a Sauvignon Blanc.

A printer-friendly version of this recipe.
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