Agrodolce is a terribly useful thing. It’s the Italian equivalent of sweet’n’sour, a flavour that is vivid yet also somehow comforting. It gives a lift to pretty much everything it touches. Sicilian food uses it most widely, for vegetables, fish and meat.
Caponata, arguably the island’s most famous dish, is essentially vegetables ‘in agrodolce’ – aubergines and tomatoes brought together with pine nuts and raisins (the latter combination a legacy of Arab rule between the 9th-11th centuries) and the enlivening partnership of vinegar and sugar.
The recipe below uses similar flavours as a sort of “warm dressing” for sea bream. It’s at the punchier end of the agrodolce scale. You could also try it with sea bass and sardines – filleted or whole.
Ingredients (serves 2)
2 sea bream, gutted and scaled
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2-4 slices lemon
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
A handful thyme
Extra virgin olive oil
1 red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 medium long red peppers, seeds and membranes removed, sliced about 5mm thick
1 tsp fennel seed
2 pinches dried chilli flakes
3-4 tbsp pine nuts
3-4 tbsp raisins
Make three diagonal slashes on each side of the fish. Season inside and out with salt and pepper, then push a slice or two of lemon into the cavity of each fish, along with half a sliced clove of garlic and a few sprigs of thyme. Splash the bottom of a roasting tin with olive oil and place the fish on top. Add another splash of oil and put to one side.
Heat 4 tbsp olive oil in a frying pan. Add the onions, peppers, remaining garlic, fennel seed, chilli flakes, plus ½ tsp salt. Cook over a gentle heat for 10-15 minutes, stirring often, until the vegetables are soft, but not brown.
Put the fish in the oven and cook for 15-20 minutes until the flesh separates easily from the bone.
While the fish is cooking, add the pine nuts and raisins to the softened pepper and onion mixture, then stir in the sugar, followed by the vinegar. Allow to bubble away for a few minutes, until the liquid turns syrupy.
Add 150ml water and bring back to a simmer. Leave to cook for a few minutes more.
As it bubbles, the water and oily juices should combine and thicken a little. Taste and season again if necessary – it should be sweet and sour, so also add more vinegar or sugar as you see fit – then remove from the heat. Stir in the capers and most of the parsley.
Serve the fish with the sweet-sour vegetables and their juices poured over the top – either on individual plates or straight from the roasting tin – scattering with a little more parsley.
Lucas Hollweg is an award-winning food writer, cookbook author and cook. A former Sunday Times journalist and cookery columnist, he writes for a wide range of food publications. His most recent book isGood Things to Eat.