Afghan Ratatouille

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Might seem odd to call a french dish, Afghan. After all, Ratatouille is a stew of simmered summer vegetables usually with tomatoes, peppers, zucchini and eggplant. Interestingly in Afghanistan, and really in the entire Central Asian region there are notorious for stews as well – all utilizing seasonal ingredients, excepting that the spices and herbs rule in the stews. My mother regularly made this version of Ratatouille and always called it Choresh, which basically means in farsi – stew. Probably the closet cousin to this dish is the Persian Eggplant dish called Choresh Badjeman. The emphasis on my dish is on the spices: cumin and turmeric, which gives it more color and more of an earthy, slightly smoky flavor that I love so much. Traditionally the french cook each vegetable in separate pots, tending to each vegetable’s needs before bringing them together at the end. I use one pot for everything, just like all Central Asian cooks. We cook everything in one pot and let it cook slowly over a low flame.  It’s not just that it’s easier, the results taste better because all the vegetables have plenty of time to get acquainted in the pot. I also don’t peel or seed the tomatoes. Generally speaking ratatouille needs time. Time for the garlic, onions and bell peppers to caramelize, making them sweet. Time for the thick-cut vegetables to soften, and of course time to illicit the essence from each ingredient, allowing them to mingle and reduce before being reabsorbed by the zucchini and eggplant. I like to serve this over basmati rice so that the rice can absorb the flavors and get soaked into each grain.

Serves 6

INGREDIENTS

1 medium eggplant, cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 medium onions, sliced
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided, plus more to taste
6 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
2 bell peppers,  (preferably sweet) cut into 1/4-inch slices
on the horizontal
2 medium zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch rounds
3 ripe medium tomatoes, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
Sea Salt to taste

Directions

  1. Toss the eggplant cubes with a teaspoon or so of salt. Set the cubes in a colander to drain for about 20 minutes.
  2. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Stir in the onions and cook until translucent, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until the garlic starts to brown.
  3. Pat the eggplant dry, add to the pan, and cook stirring frequently, until golden. Add a bit more oil if the eggplant absorbs all the oil and sticks to the bottom of the pan.
  4. Sprinkle in the rest of the spices and adjust the seasoning with salt.
  5. Then stir in bell peppers. Cook for a few more minutes, then stir in zucchini. Cook for a few more minutes, then stir in tomatoes and cook for 10 to 15 minutes more, until all the vegetables are soft.

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