Ifirst ate ciambotta as part of an otherwise pretty terrible lunch at a trattoria in Reggio Calabria. It was during my early, rose-tinted days in Italy, so my food illusions were mostly undented – until that place, with stickers on the door and an industrious nonna in the kitchen. Thank god for the ciambotta, a stew of aubergines, peppers, tomatoes and potato, which was a dense, velvety pleasure among bizarre pasta and fishy fish. The Italians at the table, including a Calabrian, complained that the ciambotta, although tasty, may have been sitting around rather too long. But this was precisely what I loved about it: it reminded me of the last portion of my mum’s ratatouille, the flavours sweet and soused, the vegetables slumped and surrounded by an oily, orange halo.
My ciambotta is inspired by those from the toe of Italy, Calabria, and is to my mind a near-perfect dish, an olive oil-rich, pot-bellied stew of onion, tomato, aubergine and red pepper with – and this the key – potatoes.
Apart from being a favourite, this dish encapsulates four steps of Italian home cooking – laughably obvious ones, maybe, but relearning them has changed the way I cook: softening an onion, peeling tomatoes, braising and deep-frying for victory. As cook Rosetta Constantino teaches, frying the aubergine and peppers (two of each cut into chunks) separately is the secret to the rich and full flavours of southern Italian cooking. Remember: with aubergine, depth matters – a little oil is soaked up like a greedy sponge. Paradoxically, if you cover chunks of it in a couple of inches of olive oil in a small frying pan, in batches, it absorbs less of it. Blot properly before mixing the now golden pieces with the onion, tomato and potato in the last minutes of cooking; stir gently so they remain distinct, then leave to rest before serving.
Pinpoint accuracy disappears with cooking like this, which is how it should be: your eyes, hands and stomach deciding how much of everything you are going to put in, your head a cooking satnav, recalculating according to how the process is going, how it all tastes, adding tiny pinches of salt as you go along, a pinch of sugar to balance bitterness, a dash of vinegar to sharpen the edges, fresh herbs if you wish. Having usurped ratatouille, this is what I serve with lamb; it also good with rice, hard-boiled or fried eggs. The last portion, a velvety mush after three days in the fridge, alongside the last cold sausage, are the leftovers of my dreams.
Ciambotta Calabrese (Calabrian-style tomato, potato and aubergine stew)
600g ripe tomatoes
1 large onion
1 large potato
2 red peppers
2 medium aubergines
Peel the tomatoes by plunging them into boiling water for two minutes, then under cold water, at which point the skins should slip away. Chop the tomatoes roughly (scooping out the seeds, if you wish). Peel and slice the onion into half moons and chop the peeled potato, red pepper and aubergines into chunks the size of a nutmeg.
In a large, wide frying pan or casserole, fry the onion in plenty of olive oil and a pinch of salt over a low-medium heat, until soft and translucent. Add the potato, stir and add a small glass of warm water so the potatoes bubble. After five minutes, add the tomato and allow to simmer gently for 30–40 minutes or until soft, rich and saucy (add a little water if it starts to look dry).
Now you have two options: you can simply add the aubergine and peppers to the pan about 10 minutes after the potatoes and cook everything together. Alternatively, in a separate pan in a couple of inches of olive oil, fry the chunks of aubergine and pepper in batches until soft and golden, draining on kitchen towel and then stir into the tomato in the last few minutes of cooking. Either way, once cooked, taste and add salt as necessary. Serve at room temperature.