A venerable partnership: Vegetables
Have you ever noticed how a truly fulfilling dish often contains a special partnership of foods? Think about dishes that might be especially memorable. What about s’mores (chocolate, marshmallow, and graham crackers) or a salad with pear, walnut, and blue cheese?
Partnerships offer other benefits. They give a dish a clear personality, which can keep it from being overly fussy or confusing. Working with a partnership a cook won’t be tempted to add “everything but the kitchen sink.”
Partnerships invite improvisation. If you hit a cooking rut, pull out your list of favorite partnerships and begin plotting to spark a spontaneous creation. Partnerships transferred from one dish to another technique—say from pear, walnut and blue cheese salad—can result in surprising and original meals—like a savory pear, walnut and blue cheese braised chicken. Or borrow shallots, ginger, red curry paste, chilies, cilantro, coconut milk and vegetables from a Thai curry and translate it to coconut curry risotto. With the right cook, pizza’s team of tomato, mozzarella, and oregano might transfer well to a rice pilaf or salad.
Long-lasting dishes are a great place to search for great partnerships. They contain combinations that have been sifted by a jury of ancestors: pork, prunes and cream; potatoes and leeks, and basil, garlic, pine nuts and olive oil. One of the most venerable partnerships, widely beloved in Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, is the classic summer combo of onion, garlic, eggplant, tomato, bell pepper, and zucchini. French ratatouille and Italian caponata are two dishes that might come to mind.
There are so many more.
Pisto Manchego (pee-stow man-chay-go) is the true mother of ratatouille. Though the French lay claim to this vegetable braise of onion, garlic, tomato, bell pepper, eggplant, and zucchini, it originated in Don Quixote’s La Mancha region, south of Madrid in the harsh, hot, and arid central region. Manchegans call it by its Moorish-Arabic name, alboronia.
Though La Mancha translates to “the scar,” the region is one of Spain’s major crops producers: agriculture thrives on the soil and in the climate; pisto came out of its bounty.
Samfaina is the Catalan version, sometimes made with grilled or roasted vegetables. Mallorcans in the Balearic Islands layer and bake this vegetable combo (plus potatoes) into tumbet. When pisto moved north and east into Italy, it was transformed into caponata. Much later pisto moved into southern France to become the prized ratatouille.
Pisto, samfaina, and tumbet can serve as an appetizer, side dish, tapa, be eaten hot or cold on its own, or on toast. Pisto and samfaina also serve, much like sofrito, as a base for a main dish stewed with salt cod or chicken, with chorizo or hard cooked eggs, or as an egg-poaching medium. Valencian cooks spread it on coca, a flatbread pizza, with tuna and pine nuts.
Though eggplant is optional to pisto, both pisto and samfaina always include olive oil, onion, garlic, bell peppers, and tomatoes. Both use green bell peppers and some cooks might add diced potato, squash, diced Serrano ham, vinegar, fresh basil, or oregano.
One of four important Catalan sauces (with allioli, sofregit, and picada) samfaina’s collection of onion, garlic, eggplant, tomato, and bell pepper can be cooked until silky and sauce-like or cooked just until vegetables are tender, but still retain texture.
A Mallorcan casserole of potatoes, eggplant, zucchini, and red bell peppers. Each vegetable is sautéed in olive oil separately, layered with tomato sauce then baked.
This Basque pisto uses less tomato and has zucchini as the main ingredient. It’s drier than most ratatouilles.
A little fussier than pisto or samfaina, the vegetables for ratatouille are peeled, seeded, and diced. They are often sautéed separately, then simmered together for a short time. French ratatouille was first made around Provence and Nice in the south of France. French chef Joël Robuchon says that the secret of a good ratatouille is to cook the vegetables separately “so each will taste truly of itself.” In the classic dish, fresh tomatoes simmer with Provençal olive oil, garlic, and thyme into a sauce. The separately sweated, tender vegetables, parsley, and basil are added to the tomato sauce and just heated through; if the tomatoes aren’t ripe and rich, cooks stir in a little tomato paste. In Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Volume 1), Knopf, 1971, Julia Childs roasts the vegetables in a 400 degree F oven then layers them with the sauce and simmers the dish 10 minutes. It may be served hot, warm, or room temperature or used as a base for soup and stew.
This thick stew of onions, tomatoes, red and green bell peppers, garlic, and the rusty-red Basque Piment d’Espelette hot chili is a favorite on its own (piper means a hot red pepper). French cooks traditionally prepare pipérade as a medium for scrambled eggs or as an omelet filling. Stir it into cooked rice or employ it as the base of a fish stew with fresh tuna or as a Basque-style chicken stew.
Caponata is the sweet-sour Italian version of Spanish pisto Manchego and French ratatouille. More like a complex salad, the vegetables for caponata (celery instead of zucchini) are cooked separately, mixed with capers, olives, parsley, wine vinegar, and olive oil. Some versions include anchovy, pine nuts, and raisins. The secret of great caponata is the same as great ratatouille: cook each vegetable separately, combine, and rest overnight before serving so flavors can develop.
Southern Italian Ciambotta
This summer vegetable stew is similar to ratatouille. It consists of eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers, potatoes, garlic, tomatoes, basil, and red pepper flakes. The vegetables are generally browned separately in olive oil, then simmered with garlic and tomatoes for a short time.
Signature Recipe: Spanish Summer Vegetable Pisto or Samfaina
Simmer pisto or samfaina slowly to allow time for the natural vegetable flavors to merge and mingle. The simmering vegetables form a silky stew, and as they break down they release rich flavor. Prepare them ahead. They taste better as they sit, reaching peak after a day or two. Proportions are up to the cook. It’s traditional to peel the eggplant, but that takes away nutrients. For less seeds, choose small eggplant. For crunchy sautéed or raw peppers without skin, Spanish cooks use a very sharp vegetable peeler; roasting peppers to remove skin softens them and removes their crunch.
From Discovering Global Cuisines by Nancy Krcek Allen
La Mancha Style Pisto Manchego
Yields 3-1/2 cups
16 to 18 ounces eggplant, about 6 cups diced into 1-inch cubes
8 ounces zucchini, about 2 cups diced into 1-inch cubes
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
4 to 5 ounces onion, 1 cup peeled and diced into 1/2-inch cubes
8 ounces green bell pepper, 1-1/4 cups, stemmed, seeded, and diced 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 ounce garlic, 2 large cloves, 1 tablespoon peeled and minced
1 pound ripe tomatoes, 2 to 2-1/2 cups, cored, peeled, and diced into 1/2-inch cubes
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
Catalan Style Samfaina
Yields 3 cups
7 to 8 ounces Japanese eggplant, 3 cups diced into 1/2-inch cubes
7 ounces zucchini, 1-1/2 cups trimmed and diced into 1/2-inch cubes
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
6 to 7 ounces onion, 1-1/2 cups peeled and diced into 1/2-inch cubes
4 to 5 ounces red bell pepper, 1 cup stemmed, seeded, and diced into 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 ounce garlic, 2 large cloves garlic, 1 tablespoon peeled and minced
8 ounces tomato, about 1 large, 1 to 1-1/2 cups peeled, seeded, and diced 1/2 inch
- Toss eggplant and zucchini with 1 tablespoon kosher salt. Rest vegetables 20 to 30 minutes. Rinse well, drain, and pat very dry.
- Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a deep 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté eggplant and zucchini until tender and lightly colored, 5 to 8 minutes. If skillet browns, deglaze with 1 to 2 tablespoons water and cook until water evaporates. Remove vegetables with slotted spoon and set aside.
- Heat skillet over medium heat, add 2 tablespoons oil, and stir in onions. Cook until soft, 5 minutes, and add bell pepper. Simmer until the peppers are just tender, 5 minutes. Stir in garlic and tomatoes, cover skillet, and reduce heat to low. Simmer mixture until tomatoes begin to break down, 15 to 20 minutes. Stir frequently.
- Return zucchini and eggplant to skillet, and:
Pisto: Simmer 40 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding small amounts of water if necessary. The zucchini and eggplant should soften and break down.
Samfaina: Simmer until very tender, about 10 minutes.
- Season mixture with salt and pepper. Stir vinegar into Pisto. Taste.
- Serve Pisto Manchego or Samfaina hot or room temperature, as a light lunch with toasted bread or as an appealing side dish.
- Thin either mixture with chicken or beef stock to make a thick soup or stew.
- Spread mixture on a half baguette and top with Spanish egg tortilla.
- Use as an omelet filling.
- Use to garnish a soup.
- Stew chicken or fish in either mixture.
About the Author
Chef-educator Nancy Krcek Allen has traveled extensively, and has worked in kitchens and classrooms for more than 30 years. She graduated from California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. While living in New York City, Allen worked full-time teaching recreational and professional cooking for the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) and the Natural Gourmet Institute in Manhattan, and in Viareggio, Italy, for Toscana Saporita.
During her time at ICE and the Natural Gourmet, Allen wrote curriculum for the professional and recreational programs. While living in New York, Allen was a member of the New York Association of Culinary Teachers, Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, and the International Association of Culinary Professionals, where she attained a Certified Culinary Professional rating.
International cuisines are Allen’s passion and she has traveled around the world to learn about food and cooking. Allen owned a restaurant and cooking school, catering business, and has worked as a freelance writer for various publications. In Michigan Allen has taught for a decade at Chateau Chantal Winery Cooking School on Old Mission Peninsula and Michigan and Northwestern Michigan College, both in Traverse City, Michigan. She is the author of the culinary textbook Discovering Global Cuisines: Traditional Flavors and Techniques.
Allen currently works as a cook at an organic farm, and as a cooking teacher and freelance writer. She is working on a cookbook featuring seasonal farm food. Allen lives in Leelanau County in northern Michigan along the glacial moraines of Lake Michigan.