Ciambotta: a southern Italian stew, Or, the art of the fond

Last Thursday I ended up meeting some friends at a bar called Rudy’s, where every drink comes with a hot dog, unless you order two drinks, in which case you get two hot dogs.  Throw in the $5  “Stimulus Package” — a shot of Bushmills and the beer of your choice — and we’re talking about an 75% discount over what I paid for a Coors Light and a depressing cheeseburger at a Mets game on Saturday.

This was all well and good, but then there was reflection on the matter of eating ballpark food at a bar and bar food at a ballpark within days of each other.  Something had to be done.  And it was this:

The erasure of mistakes past?

My roommate’s subscription to Cook’s Illustrated is a highly useful resource to have around the apartment.  There I found a recipe for ciambotta, a stew featured in southern Italy “that peasant farmers have been feasting on for centuries.”  Ciambotta is an all-vegetable affair, leaving me to do the nutritional jujitsu that allows one to believe that eating quality food in the present erases mistakes past.  Even if that’s not the case, this is a hearty, complex meld of flavors that even the carnivorous among us should enjoy.  I particularly enjoyed learning a deglazing technique (creating a “fond”) with the pestata in this stew –  your kitchen will fill with an aromatic steam of basil, oregano, and garlic.


Your phone camera will save you time copying them down when you go to the store, as well as when you blog about the results.  See also:

Hope this is readable

A lot of this stuff you may already have around the kitchen, which means that even if it can’t rival “The Stimulus Package,” it may come close.  I think I spent about $15 for a stew that will last 3-4 dinners and should freeze pretty well if I don’t want those in succession.

You’ll notice that parmesan cheese is not included here, which to me seemed like an egregious error in judgement, so I threw that on top of the stew at the end for a little extra flavor and heartiness.

For the visual learners out there:

Consider adding a grated or shredded cheese to this lineup.


Start with the Pestata – this is a pesto-like garnish that will season your zucchini and peppers, which could serve as a side for a traditional Italian meal.   This particular pestata is a great coating for sauteed veggies, and the aroma is mythic when you sizzle the basil, oregano, and garlic on high heat. Anyway, just put the pestata ingredients above in a food processor like so, and you’re done:

Unlike pesto, you should not dip your finger into this mixture and taste. Your tongue is not worthy.

Move on to the Ciambotta

1.  The first thing you do is microwave the eggplant for 8-12 minutes until it is sort of dry and spongy.  While this isn’t grandma’s method, it is supposed to prevent your stew from getting extra watery – the eggplant dries out, and will eventually dissolve into the sauce of your stew.  Toss the eggplant with 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt in a bowl before microwaving.

2. Put 2 tablespoons of oil on high heat in a Dutch oven (or whatever pot you have with a tight lid), then add the potatoes, onion, and eggplant.  Cook until eggplant browns and surface of potatoes are translucent, about 2 minutes.

3.  This is where you create a fond, or deglaze, the tomato paste. I failed at this because my Dutch oven wasn’t large enough, but the idea as I understand it is you almost burn some sauce to the bottom of your pan, then add water to scrape up the browned bits.  Basically imagine that you’re making a mixture that only Dad would eat.

To do this right, push the veggies to the sides of the pot, add a tablespoon of oil and the tomato paste to the clearing, and stir, until a brown fond develops on the bottom of the pot, about 2 minutes.  You’ll see below that this tomato paste isn’t burning to the pan because there’s little space to thin it out, so I just moved on from this whole fond exercise at this juncture.

The failed fond.

Once the fond is formed (or not), add 2 cups of water and the chopped tomatoes and juice from the can and scrape up the browned bits you just formed.  Scale the heat back to medium, cover the pot, and simmer till the eggplant is completely broken down and the potatoes are tender, about 20-25 minutes.  Progress check:

Helps to have a roommate with a sweet Dutch oven.

4. Now heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large skillet over high heat, and add the zuchinni and bell peppers and a 1/2 teaspoon of salt.  Cook until the veggies are browned and tender, about 10-12 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Push the veggies to the side, and add the pestata. Savor the smell – this is the point when your neighbors get jealous.

Fond attempt #2

If not already present in your skillet, you should see a brown/black crust forming on the bottom of your pan while cooking the pestatta.  This is OK, as it will be the basis of a sauce that gets poured into your stew in just a few minutes.

There is empty space here so I’m going to type something just for aesthetics.  There.  I feel much better now.

Mix the veggies with the pestata – as noted I think just this portion of the recipe could be a useful side dish for a variety of meals.  Like so:

You may just go out on top here.

OK, we’re really going to explore the skillet space here.  Normally the pan below is a headache for whoever’s washing dishes that night.

But if you add a 1/4 cup of water immediately, and scrape up the yummy caramelized residue that lies behind, you get a sauce that Jake Mann would be proud of:

5. Pour the vegetables and water from your skillet into the Dutch oven.  Cover, and let the flavors lovingly embrace one other for about 20 minutes.  When you serve, stir in some fresh basil and sprinkle with cheese if you so desire.

Stir it, cover it, enjoy it.

Enjoy southern Italy in your kitchen!


2 thoughts on “Ciambotta: a southern Italian stew, Or, the art of the fond

  1. Yes sir pastafarian, that is a pestata masterpiece. I’ll have to check the really old dog-eared peasant cookbook on the shelf at home and compare. Looks delicious, sorry about your fond. Disastrous.

  2. Mike, this sounds and looks really yummy! And I’m selfishly happy it can be made without cheese, I’m still off dairy for Adam’s sake and feel like I’ve run out of options. You’re a cooking machine!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s