Make It Your Way: Ciambotta

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The dish ciambotta may never be listed on an Italian menu. The word probably isn't in most Italian dictionaries. But visit just about any home kitchen in southern Italy, and there'll be a pot of this vegetable stew simmering on the stove.

When I was growing up in Brooklyn, my mother made several versions of ciambotta . We ate it hot for lunch with lots of good bread, or at room temperature as a side dish with grilled steak, sausages or chicken. Ciambotta tastes good freshly made, but it's even better the next day or the day after. Eat it plain, mixed with threads of fresh basil, or topped with scrambled eggs or grated cheese. And don't forget to stuff it in a fresh roll or pita bread for a tasty sandwich.

Ciambotta is easy to make and extremely flexible. In fact, it's more of a process than a recipe. Usually I start with an onion gently cooked in olive oil until it is tender. Then I add the firm vegetables like potatoes, or those I want to cook down like tomatoes or eggplant. Often the vegetables can stew in their own juices, but sometimes a little water is needed to keep them moist. Quantities are not really important and one more or less bell pepper, onion or zucchini will not change the results dramatically.

Salt and pepper and maybe a pinch of dried oregano go in, though I usually prefer to add fresh herbs like basil or Italian parsley at the end of the cooking time to protect their delicate flavor. I cover the pot and let the vegetables stew until they are very soft and tender, checking from time to time to see that the liquid does not dry up. If it is too wet, I just take off the lid for 5 minutes or so. Delicate peas or tiny fresh fava beans can be added toward the end of the cooking time, but this is not a dish for those who insist on their vegetables being whole or crunchy.

Eggplant, peppers, summer squash and tomatoes become soft and melted by the slow moist heat, and potatoes absorb the flavorful liquid. Whatever combination of compatible vegetables you use, ciambotta always tastes terrific.

Like most Italian recipes, there is more than one way to cook ciambotta . In "Naples at Table" (HarperCollins, $28.50), Arthur Schwartz writes that many cooks in the Naples area insist that each vegetable in a ciambotta should be fried separately before being added to the others. He says that some cooks use olive oil while others rely on lard and one even mentioned butter, though that is hardly typical of Naples. Schwartz's recipe, which sounds delicious, is flavored with olives, capers and quite a lot of fresh basil.

Ciambotta is a member of that hard-to-define category of Italian foods known as minestre , generally somewhere between a thick soup and a stew. It is related to the French ratatouille, typically made with eggplant, onions and tomatoes, and the Sicilian caponata , made with more or less the same vegetables, plus celery and olives. A number of the ciambotta recipes I came across in my research contained vinegar, bringing them even closer to the sweet-and-sour Sicilian caponata.

In southern Italy, ciambotta (pronounced chahm-BOHT-tah) may also be spelled giambotta or cianfotta , depending on the region. It seems to be a dialect word that indicates not only a vegetable stew but also a mess. When someone gets confused telling a story or putting something together, people of southern Italian extraction might say they have made a big ciambotta .

If only every mess tasted this good.

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Scicolone is the author of several Italian cookbooks, including "Italian Holiday Cooking" to be published in September by William Morrow.

Zucchini Ciambotta

Active Work Time: 25 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour * Vegetarian

This is another one of my mother's recipes. It works great with any summer squash. We used to make it with one we called cuccuzza, a pale green squash that if left unchecked grew to impossible lengths in our tiny backyard garden.

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2 onions

4 plum tomatoes

3 small to medium zucchini

2 baking potatoes, peeled

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 clove garlic, minced

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

Cut the onions, tomatoes, zucchini and potatoes into 1-inch cubes.

In a large saucepan, cook the onions in the oil over medium heat until tender, about 5 to 8 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook 1 minute more.

Add the tomatoes, zucchini and potatoes and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are very tender, 30 minutes. Add a little water if the mixture seems dry.

When the ciambotta is done, remove it from the heat and stir in the basil. Serve hot or at room temperature.

4 to 6 servings. Each of 6 servings: 147 calories; 58 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 7 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 20 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 2.68 grams fiber.

Artichoke Ciambotta

Active Work Time: 45 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour * Vegetarian

This ciambotta is a good way to use the small artichokes that grow at the top of the artichoke plant.

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6 to 8 small artichokes

1 onion, finely chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

1/2 pound green beans, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces

1 cup fresh or frozen fava beans, lima beans or peas

Salt, pepper

3 tablespoons chopped parsley

To trim the artichokes down to the heart, bend the dark green outer leaves back until they snap off near the base. When you reach the center cone of pale, tender leaves, cut off about 1/2 inch of the pointed tops. Cut the artichokes into halves or quarters, depending on the size. The fuzzy choke in small artichokes should be tender enough to be edible, but it can be cut out with a paring knife. *

In a medium skillet, cook the onion with the olive oil over medium heat until tender, about 5 to 8 minutes. Stir in the garlic, then add the artichoke hearts and a couple of tablespoons of water. Cover and cook 15 minutes.

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Add the green beans, favas and salt and pepper to taste. Cook the ciambotta until the vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes more. Stir in the parsley and serve hot or at room temperature.

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4 to 6 servings. Each of 6 servings: 145 calories; 162 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 31 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 9.2 grams fiber.

Oven-Roasted Vegetables (Cianfotta al Forno)

Active Work Time: 30 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 1/2 hours * Vegetarian

Though it is quite different in flavor and texture from the stove-top versions, this oven ciambotta is one of my favorites. The high dry-oven heat concentrates the flavors of the vegetables and brings out all their sweetness. Some cooks cut up eggplant and salt the pieces to remove the juices. I only do this if I am frying it, which is not the case in this recipe.

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4 plum tomatoes

2 red or yellow bell peppers

2 baking potatoes, peeled

2 onions

1 eggplant

6 cloves garlic

1/3 cup olive oil

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

1/2 cup chopped fresh basil

Heat the oven to 400 degrees.

Cut the tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, onions and eggplant into 1-inch pieces. Place them in a shallow roasting pan large enough to hold all of the ingredients in a single layer.

Add the garlic, olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well.

Bake until the vegetables are tender and browned, 60 to 75 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes or so. Remove the vegetables to a serving dish, scraping up the browned bits. Stir in the basil. Serve warm or at room temperature.

6 servings. Each serving: 187 calories; 58 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 12 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 19 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 3.56 grams fiber.

Neapolitan Ciambotta

Active Work Time: 25 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour 15 minutes * Vegetarian

This is a version of my mother's recipe.

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1 onion

4 plum tomatoes

2 baking potatoes, peeled

1 eggplant

1 red bell pepper

1 yellow bell pepper

3 tablespoons olive oil

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

1/2 cup torn fresh basil leaves, optional

Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino or Romano cheese, optional

Cut the onion, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant and red and yellow bell peppers into 1-inch cubes. In a large skillet, cook the onion in the oil over medium-low heat until tender, about 5 to 8 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant and peppers. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until all the vegetables are tender and most of the liquid is evaporated, about 40 minutes. If the mixture becomes too dry, add a couple of tablespoons of water. If there is too much liquid, uncover and cook 5 minutes more.

Serve the ciambotta warm or at room temperature plain or with basil or cheese.

Variation: Ciambotta With Eggs: When the vegetables are ready, beat 4 to 6 eggs with salt until blended. Pour the eggs over the vegetables. Do not stir. Cover the pan. Cook until the eggs are set, about 3 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

4 to 6 servings. Each of 6 servings: 133 calories; 57 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 7 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 17 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 3.19 grams fiber.

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