October 11, 2010
The bulgy yellow and red tomatoes stacked up at the greenmarket Saturday gave New York City a sweet glow. That is until the sun turned its back and went down, cold-bloodedly, at barely past six o'clock.
Samfaina is Catalonia's consolation for this particular heartbreak. Go home with the tomatoes, and also eggplant and red peppers, chop them up and get them simmering in a huge skillet with plenty of onions, a little garlic, and a lot of olive oil, and you'll forget that time is passing you by for at least a week.
A good batch of samfaina starts out as a chunky, saucy counterpoint to a piece of crisp fried fish or roasted chicken. A couple of days later it makes a lusty bed for a poached egg. Slather the rest, if there is any, on bread. Give yourself extra credit for toasted black olive bread.
Martha Rose Shulman wrote about samfaina in last week's New York Times (One Culture's Ratatouille Is Another's Fill-in-the-Blank). She says the Catalan incarnation is one of her favorites. I'm with her there. But I'd say this is no time to skimp on olive oil. That's what saves samfaina from the slushiness of the French stuff. Catalan cooks discourage the eggplant from hogging up all the oil by adding it late in the game, after the tomatoes have gone in and juiced things up.
I learned that bit about adding the vegetables in the proper order from the Fundació Institut Català de la Cuina, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving Catalonia's culinary heritage. Their Corpus Culinari is a motherlode of traditional recipes, including samfaina. Shulman's recipe includes zucchini, which the folks at the Institut might see as an interloper. Ditto the green pepper. Traditionalists probably wouldn't approve of my use of cherry tomatoes for this either—it's just that they seem to be the sweetest things on the vine in fall around here and I like to leave some whole to brighten the finished dish with dots of red. Everything else gets a nice small dice.
The Corpus says to simmer the vegetable mixture until it's "ben confitat." Their recipes are not for people who use timers. Shulman cooks the vegetables down for four hours. I save that kind of commitment for sofregit—the dark caramelized base of many Catalan sauces. But for samfaina, the whole dice, saute, stir, repeat goes on only somewhere over an hour. The days are too short for anything more.
Samfaina—Tomato and Eggplant Ragout
2 sweet onions (1 lb.), chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 red peppers (1 lb.), chopped
2 pints cherry tomatoes, halve one pint and leave the other whole
2 small eggplants (1 lb.), chopped
3/4 cup olive oil
a pinch of red pepper flakes
salt and pepper
2 Tbsp. sherry vinegar
Heat a large skillet while you chop the onion. Pour about 1/4 cup of the olive oil into the skillet and keep chopping while it warms.
Add the onions to the pan. (It helps to have a big bowl on hand so you can clear the diced vegetables out of your way and keep them moving towards the skillet.) Give the onions a turn now and then; they need about 10 minutes while you mince the garlic. Turn in the garlic. You want the vegetables simmering and going translucent for another 5 minutes or so, but not caramelizing too quickly.
Gently stir in another 1/4 cup of the olive oil. Get going on the red peppers and turn them into the mixture. They need another 10 minutes or so of simmering.
Next up, the tomatoes––halve one pint, throw the other in whole. Let things cook down, giving them an occasional gentle stir, for about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, dice the eggplant (keep the dice fairly small). Stir in the last 1/4 cup of olive oil and turn in the eggplant. Sprinkle on the red pepper flakes––just a pinch because the idea here is not heat: you want the red pepper to brighten things up without really being detectable. Season with the vinegar, a few grinds of black pepper, and a little salt. Taste and correct the seasonings while the vegetables simmer on for another 20 minutes or so, until the eggplant is tender.
I like to keep the samfaina slightly on the bland side, especially if it is being used as a sauce for something a little salty-crunchy like pan-fried salt cod or rabbit or toasted black olive-studded bread. This dish keeps and improves over a couple of days in the fridge. Reheat it gently to re-incorporate the olive oil.