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