If it sometimes feels like picnics are all about barbecued meats, then all you plant-based folk out there are going to love this colorful, veggie-heavy and budget-friendly recipe that is perfect for a summer cookout.
The base of this dish has many names and variations depending on where you call home. The French version is known as ratatouille. The Basque and the Catalans call it escalivada while the Italians have a number of names for regionals variations including caponata. Either way, it includes a panoply of antioxidant-rich tomatoes, eggplant and bell peppers and is incredibly versatile.
Today’s one-pan version is known in Calabria (the tip of the Italian boot) as Purgatorio. The Calabrese enjoy it as a street food sandwich, for a healthy lunch on the go.
This dish can be served as a hearty country stew for a relaxed dinner, or blended into a thick spread served with dipping accompaniments like bread or crudités for an evening aperitivo. If you have any leftover, it also makes for a great pasta sauce with some extra tomato passata.
Purgatorio alla Calabrese
Serves 4-6 sandwiches; Prep. Time: 20 to 30 minutes.
- 1 European eggplant (the fat, dark purple kind)
- 2 potatoes
- 2 bell pepper (any colour but green)
- 3 tomatoes
- 1 tablespoon capers (optional)
- 2 spring onions
- 1/4 bunch basil, leaves only
- 2-3 tablespoons extra virgin live oil
- sea salt (or other high quality salt) and fresh ground black pepper
- any baguette or ciabatta style bread of choice
- filtered water
Step 1: After washing all the vegetables, peel the eggplant and cut into cubes no bigger than your thumbnail (if making this as a spread, then cut even smaller) and soak in water with 1/2 tablespoon of sea salt for 30 minutes.
Step 2: Place a pot with enough water to cover the tomatoes on high heat and bring to a boil.
Step 3: While the water comes to temperature, dice the bell peppers and potatoes the same size as the eggplant. Place the potato cubes in cold water to prevent browning until ready to use.
Step 4: Remove the core from the tomatoes and score a small “X” on the bottom of each one. Don’t cut too deep. You just want to break the skin. At this point have a bowl of ice water nearby. If there is no ice then it’s all good- you’ll just need to do this step a little quicker. Place the tomatoes in the boiling water one at a time to maintain the temperature and leave them in for NO MORE than 10 seconds. Count to 8 even. Then quickly place them in the ice water to stop the cooking. When they’re cool enough to handle, place the edge of the knife under the centre of the X you cut and peel the skins away. Discard the skins and dice the tomato into cubes the same size as the other vegetables.
Step 5: Drain both the eggplants and the potatoes. Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a pan on medium-high heat. Add the eggplant, season, then reduce the heat to medium-low. Stir and cook for 10 minutes. Add the potatoes and the tomatoes, then continue cooking for another 5 minutes.
Step 6: Finally add the bell peppers, capers (if using), and around a couple of tablespoons of filtered water if it’s starting to look dry. The bell peppers will only take a couple minutes to soften. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Turn off the heat and tear the basil leaves right into the pan, then gently stir them in. (For a spread, let cool to room temperature and then whizz in a food processor or leave chunky).
Step 7: Cut the bread lengthwise in the middle. You can go all the way through or leave a hinge on one side. Scoop out some of the inside to make room for the filling. Fill the bread and then indulge in a fat bite!
Normally you would serve the sandwiches immediately, but if you are preparing for a picnic, then keep the prepped bread and filling separate and assemble when ready to eat.
If bread is not your thing, this makes for a lovely vegan meal along with a green salad.
For the cheese lovers out there, this will go great with fresh sliced or grated caciocavallo. There are also some vegetarian varieties of fontina or provolone that would work instead.
After graduating from The Culinary Institute of America in New York, Chef Anthony J. Damico trained in kitchens in Texas, Barcelona, Guangdong, and Hong Kong for over a decade. In recent years, his career has focused on plant-based cuisine with international influences. He is passionate about sharing the wealth of knowledge he has accumulated to help eaters everywhere make informed decisions and create delicious dishes. Damico is also an aspiring photographer, make sure to check out his beautiful portfolio on Instagram.
All images courtesy of Anthony Damico.