Livin’ La Cucina Povera

Christine Galanti

by Christine Galanti on September 8, 2011

Today’s post from contributor Christine Galanti makes the most of the waning days of warmth with a grill-friendly recipe for ratatouille. Don’t have a grill? Fire up a heavy ridged pan and pretend you’re in Provence instead of a tiny kitchen.

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.

ratatouille
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.

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