Livin’ La Cucina Povera

Written and photographed by Christine Galanti

Eggplant and I haven’t always been close friends. While I never specifically disliked it, I never paid too much attention to it either, letting the curvaceous vegetable slowly and almost imperceptibly win me over with its creamy texture and surprisingly winning flavor.

vegetables for ratatouille
Since it’s wormed its way into my heart and tastebuds, eggplant has made several memorable appearances on my palate: sliced into rounds and roasted in savory olive oil, interior silky and exterior golden and toasted at Café Mogador; braised to tenderness in caponata with tomato and onion, seasoned with cinnamon and dressed with capers and pine nuts at the Batali family’s Salumi; and fried into rich Afghan bouranee baunjaun at our old neighborhood kabob house, to name a few.

Eggplant has become both a summertime and wintertime staple in my kitchen. In the winter, I roast whole eggplants and squeeze out the flesh to make baba ghanouj with caramelized onions. In the summer, it’s always perfect on the grill. I even make faux spaghetti from eggplant cut into skinny strips, which works nicely with puttanesca.

A few months ago, I quit my day job and moved to New York City on a freelance writer’s budget. And by “freelance writer,” I mean “starving artist.” On the surface, NYC appears to be an awful choice for living on the cheap, even temporarily. If you spend time discovering any of New York’s neighborhoods, you discover that they are actually full of hidden gems, and some bargain gems. Where there are large ethnic communities, you can find markets and restaurants priced for locals, not tourists. For a resourceful cook on a budget, it’s actually a great place to be, especially during the summer when produce is fresh, bountiful and cheap.

In Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Young Fruit on Nassau Avenue is my go-to for inexpensive fruits and veggies. During the peak of the growing season, 99 cents will buy you a pound of a spectrum of fruits and veggies, from apples to pears to green leaf lettuce, and of course, eggplant. At Stiles Farmers Market in Manhattan, produce is even cheaper. At another Greenpoint market, I found red bell peppers for 89 cents per pound displayed outside on the sidewalk.

In Italy, the art of making good food using the least expensive, freshest and most seasonally available ingredients is cucina povera. Literally meaning “poor kitchen,” it sounds much more romantic in Italian. While Italy made the term famous, this concept of cooking exists all over the world, and especially around the Mediterranean.

In Provence, the quintessential end-of-summer dish is ratatouille. Immortalized by the animated film of the same name, ratatouille is an aromatic stew that makes use of seasonally-plentiful eggplant, pepper, tomato, zucchini, squash, and fresh herbs. Classic versions of the dish from Julia Child and Jacques Pepin involve a multi-step simmering process, which is rather time-consuming. Grilling over charcoal (or in a stovetop grill pan) makes cooking vegetables way more fun. And it’s a good excuse to start a fire.

Note: Eggplant (like cauliflower) is packed with water, which is why it’s so dense. The key is to salt the eggplant it while it’s raw, so the flesh releases excess moisture.

Christine_GalantiChristine Galanti is a kangaroo-cooking, five-dollar-Polish-dinner-hunting, baby-octopus loving freelance writer in New York.

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  1. says

    I love this dish! It is one of those dishes where the sum is greater than the parts. If you add wood chips to the grill, it gets even better.

  2. Christine Galanti says

    That’s a great idea, Amy. I would see your grilled corn and raise you some avocado stirred in.

  3. Merr says

    I’m excited to see this post…I make ratatouille often, but have never ever grilled to prepare it. This sounds really good.

  4. Gburgv says

    We grill veggies all summer long. They go with almost any grill dish, although grilled egplant with a little parm cheese on it is delightful

  5. says

    I’ve been grilling squashes and peppers lately, but hadn’t remembered eggplant. thanks for the reminder.

    I am surpised and encouraged at the veg prices available in NYC neighborhoods, too.