Fresh summer ingredients for Pete’s ciambotta.
Ciambotta with Fried Capers
I love your “Lost Recipes Found” feature, and for months I’ve been trying to think of an old family recipe that nobody seems to know how to make anymore. With the eggplants, zucchini, and tomatoes coming up from my next-door neighbor’s garden (and some winding up on my porch), I realize what it is: ciambotta. This was a big vegetable stew my family made often but only in the summer, with vegetables from my father’s own backyard garden. I never paid much attention to the garden when I was a kid, but I loved ciambotta. I unfortunately also never paid much attention to what was going on in the kitchen, but I can tell you this stew contained zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, and probably other things. I think we added oregano. My sister remembers olives, but I don’t think that’s correct. But I remember something sharp, possibly capers. It was thick and very rich. I recently tried my hand at it, but the texture was very watery and it really didn’t have much taste. I added garlic, but now I’m thinking my father used some sort of red scallion he grew. I’d love to taste a good version of this again. I know it’s a well-known thing, but I imagine families all have different versions that make it special for them.
This summer the memory of this stew came back to me very strong, and I’d love to make it for my kids, who say they don’t remember ever tasting it. Maybe they never did, but I’m determined to cook it for them this summer. I think more than a list of ingredients, what I need is a cooking lesson, so I don’t produce another watery, mushy mess.
Thanks for any advice you can give me. And if this helps, my father’s family was from a town in central Campania, near Avellino.
Since my family is also from a town not too far from Avellino (about 30 miles northeast toward the Puglian boarder), I’m thinking my family’s and Pete Riccio’s family’s ciambotta were probably similar. My family, like every other Southern Italian family I knew, pronounced it “jambot,” and the word has come to mean, in both Southern Italian and Italian-American slang, a big mix-up or a mess, as in “I’m in a real jambot at the track, throwing money on everything I see,”-a line, or variation on a theme, I heard my father deliver many times in his long life. So jambot in our family came to translate as something like “Somebody stop me before I do it again.”
But as far as the actual dish went, our ciambotta always included eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes, a very pared-down version of a stew that can contain a wide variety of vegetables. Occasionally we added red peppers or yellow squash too. I also recall eating a more elaborate creation at a neighbor’s that contained cubes of potato and celery, and I liked it very much. I also like Pete’s capers idea. Capers and/or olives are often a Neapolitan addition.
Ciambotta (or ciamotta, as it is sometimes written) is made throughout Southern Italy. The versions from Basilicata often include that region’s signature hot chilies. In parts of Puglia it can be a fish and vegetable stew, but more often it’s a mix of vegetables much like what I remember. I’ve also seen springtime recipes for ciambotta that contain young greens and fava beans and peas, but that’s nothing my family ever made (or if we did, it went by the name of fritedda, and came from the Sicilian side of the family). Olive oil is the usual cooking fat for a ciambotta, but you might add a bit of chopped prosciutto fat or pancetta or, for Old World charm, some good-quality lard. I prefer my ciambotta to taste exclusively of vegetables, so I go with the olive oil.
There was a wild-man version my godfather, Billy Passarelli, used to make when I was a kid, cooking it in a big iron pot he’d hoist onto his outdoor grill. This was a real crazy mix that included string beans, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, chunks of corn on the cob, zucchini, red basket wine, and big pieces of pork sausage. He’d ladle it out into huge bowls and stick pieces of grilled bread in each serving. This was a Neapolitan-American concoction of the highest order, and it was fabulous.
Despite my godfather’s elaborate creation, when I make ciambotta now I like to keep it simple. For me it’s a classic summer dish, and summer is the only time I ever make it, since the ripeness and richness of the vegetables is all-important. I always add a little fresh hot chili, and sometimes I include fennel bulb and herbs such as marjoram or the very un-Italian tarragon (which goes great with fennel).
I believe Pete is right when he mentions technique over ingredients, since just about any seasonal vegetable can go into this thing (the eggplant, zucchini, potato, tomato, and sweet peppers combo seems most typical). To avoid the mushy mess he describes, it’s important to cook the dish quickly and over relatively high heat. If you keep that in mind, you should get a good result. Aside from that, there are several ways to go about assembling the dish. Some people cook all the vegetables separately, combine them, and then give everything a final bake to blend the flavors, but I find that just adding the vegetables to the pot one after another, according to how long each takes to cook, gives a beautiful result, and it’s much less work.
Another cause of a watery result might be big, round, juicy summer tomatoes. They can be tricky to cook with, since most of them give off a tremendous amount of juice. I almost always seed, lightly salt, and drain them for about a half hour before cooking with them, unless I’m using a plum variety, which is meatier. But I do like saving the drained-off tomato water, just in case my ciambotta looks dry (it’s much better for flavor than plain water).
I’m glad Pete wrote me this email, for it reminded me that I hadn’t made ciambotta in a few years (so many gorgeous things to cook, so little time). I went about creating a version that was partly my mother’s recipe but also included aspects from versions I’d eaten in Campania and at friend’s homes when I was a kid. I’ve incorporated Pete’s capers idea, not by mixing them in but by frying them crisp until they burst open like little flowers and then scattering them on top. I think the taste and texture will be something quite close to the ciambotta of Mr. Riccio’s childhood. And Pete, I know you didn’t mention potatoes, so if they seem inappropriate to you, leave them out, though I find they add a certain suavity).
According to Carlo Middione, in his wonderful book The Food of Southern Italy, published in 1987, ciambotta is always served hot (as opposed to many Southern vegetables dishes such as caponata and even minestrone that are eaten at room temperature). We always had ours steaming hot and served alone in bowls, not as a side dish. I think that presentation is fitting for a beautiful creation that celebrates summer vegetables at the peak of their powers.
Ciambotta with Fried Capers
Note: To peel tomatoes, just plunge them into a large pot of boiling water until you notice their skins starting to split, after about 3 or 4 minutes. Scoop them out with a large strainer spoon and run them briefly under cold water. The skins will now slip right off.
(Serves 4 as an ample first course or light supper)
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 red summer scallions, chopped
2 small inner celery stalks, chopped, plus a handful of celery leaves, lightly chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into small dice
1/2 of a fresh red peperoncino, seeded, and minced
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
4 little new potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes
1 medium eggplant, unpeeled, cut into small cubes
2 medium zucchini, cut into small cubes
1/4 cup dry Marsala wine
3 medium, round summer tomatoes, peeled (see note above), seeded, chopped, lightly salted, and left to drain over a bowl in a colander for 30 minutes (save the tomato water)
A handful of basil leaves, lightly chopped
1/2 cup capers, well dried
In a large casserole, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over a medium flame. Add the scallion, celery, red bell pepper, and the peperoncino, and sauté until fragrant, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and the potatoes, and sauté a minute longer. Add the eggplant and zucchini, season with salt, and sauté about 5 minutes longer, covering the skillet for a few minutes if the vegetables get too dry. Add the Marsala, and let it boil for a few seconds. Add the tomatoes, and simmer, uncovered, at a lively bubble for about 8 minutes longer or until all the vegetables are just tender, adding the reserved tomato water if the ciambotta looks dry (the texture should be like a thick stew). Add a drizzle of fresh olive oil, the basil, and the celery leaves, and season with a little more salt, if needed. Give it a stir.
In a small skillet, heat about 1/4 inch of olive oil over medium-high heat. When hot, add the capers, and fry them until they just start to open up and become crisp, about 2 minutes. Drain well. Reheat the ciambotta if necessary, and scatter the capers over the top. Serve hot.