Thanksgiving weekend just passed in Canada and here in southern Ontario we have been enjoying what are probably our last days of sunny warm weather. Every year we get tricked into thinking the cold isn’t coming…but it is, it’s inevitable. The farmers know this and that is why these are usually the last few days you can hit the local farms and stock up on what’s left in the field. For me this means a typical phone call from mamma saying ‘Ima goto da farma, you come?’ Uh, yes! This is the last chance to get some farm fresh peppers and eggplant to make one of my favourite dishes! ‘Peperonata’. A southern Italian mixture of peppers, eggplant, and potatoes with tomato and basil. I guess you could say it is the Italian version of a stirfry or ratatouille.
What I do know is I LOVE IT AND SO WILL YOU! This old Calabrian classic is great as a side dish but is hearty enough to be a meal on its own. In fact, my mother says that up until she left Italy in 1971, peperonata was a favourite dish in her family of 9 children. For them, a large plate in the center of the table with a nice piece of bread each was the entire meal!
The ‘farm to table’ concept was just the way it was in the old world.Traditional recipes in Italy are typically reflective of what was and/or is cultivated in the area. However, we find that some recipes, although common, will vary even within the same region due to the extremely diverse landscape of Italy. For example, Calabria is surrounded by the sea on three sides but also has large mountainous regions. So you may see this peperonata recipe in some parts of Calabria without eggplant or even prepared simply with only peppers and potatoes. This manner of cooking regionally with local produce is what makes certain recipes legendary in specific areas. Often you hear people say that ‘it just isn’t the same when I make it’ but this is a huge expectation when comparing to the fresh ingredients grown locally back home.
Thanks to modern day shipping and growing methods we are no longer forced to wait for seasonal crops so you can fulfill a craving any time of the year. Remember though, the fresher the vegetables the better the taste – that will never change.
This particular recipe originates from an area at the very tip of Calabria, close to the sea, where they have an exceptionally fertile land and grow a huge variety of fruits and vegetables. The growing season in this part of Italy is very long. The summers are very hot and the winters are pretty mild. Garden greens are already being picked in March and peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes are harvested all the way up to December. My mother recalls them always having fresh vegetables available. Even in the dead of winter, their balconies served as a preservation area with hanging tomatoes, peppers, grapes and crates of other crops, nuts, and fruit that would feed them through the season. Back in the day, there were no refrigerators let alone freezers, so preserving food was a necessity. Pickling, salting, fermenting, drying, or putting things ‘sott’olio’ (under oil) is how they made their harvest last until the next crop. Peperonata is one of those dishes that would have been enjoyed fresh with vegetables straight from the plant to the table.
Even those who say they don’t eat eggplant love this dish so give it a try! Hot peppers are optional but we suggest you give it a go:) Calabria is well known for a few things and excessive use of hot peppers is one of them!
My nonna would fry it all together but my mom over the years has found that the textures and flavours are better if you fry each component seperately and then combine for a final sauté in the pan.
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 3 large potatoes cut into large 'french fries'
- 4 medium eggplant cut into large french fry size strips
- 3 large sheppard peppers or other sweet peppers cut into large chunks or strips
- 3 ripe roma tomatoes, fresh or frozen, chopped
- 1 handful fresh basil leaves
- 2 cloves chopped garlic
- salt to taste
- Fry the potatoes in a large skillet until cooked and browned (not crispy like fries)
- Remove from pan with a slotted spoon so that the remaining oil stays in the pan
- Sauté the eggplant, don't turn right away, let them brown and then turn gently
- Remove eggplant once they have browned and/or are all cooked (not mushy, roughly 6-8 minutes)
- Set aside with potatoes and add peppers to remaining oil, add a touch of olive oil if necessary.
- Fry peppers until they are blistering and remove from pan.
- Add garlic to hot oil for 30 seconds then add tomatoes.
- Once tomatoes have broken down add basil and sauté for 1 minute.
- Add back the peppers, eggplant, and potatoes and mix together over heat for 5 minutes.
- Best eaten hot with fresh bread but just as good cold the next day!
- Amounts of vegetables can be altered to your taste. e.g, if you like more peppers add more peppers
- Optional: hot peppers