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Cianfotta Napoletana

This is the traditional Neapolitan summer vegetable stew, a relation to the French ratatouille, and right now and until mid September is the best time on the calendar to make it. There are many interpretations of this dish, as well as spellings for its name. Every family has their own take on it. So please don't take it personally if it differs from your family's recipe. This recipe can also be found in my book Naples At Table.

Serve it as an antipasto or as a side dish, but always at room temperature or barely warm. It tastes great when freshly made, meaning on the same day it is made, but it can also be kept in the refrigerator for up to a week. Just make sure to take it out of the fridge well ahead of time so it will come back to room temperature, or heat it gently in the microwave or a conventional oven until the chill is off it or it is barely warm.

Makes about 6 cups

2 pounds eggplant, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 pounds sweet red peppers, washed, cored, seeded and cut into 3/4-inch squares
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 pound onions, peeled, cut in half through the root end and sliced thinly crosswise
2 or 3 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced or coarsely chopped
1 1/2 pounds potatoes, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1 pound (2 large) tomatoes, cored and cut roughly into 1-inch pieces
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup Gaeta olives, pitted or not (or other black-purple olives, such as Greek or Nicoise)
3 tablespoons large salted capers, rinsed and soaked in cold water for 5 minutes, coarsely chopped (or use small capers, unchopped, rinsed of vinegar or brine, if they come packed that way)
1 1/2 cups loosely packed basil or parsley leaves, finely cut

Place the eggplant cubes in a colander in four portions, sprinkling each portion with 1/4 teaspoon salt, then tossing altogether. Let stand over a bowl or in the sink for at least 30 minutes, preferably an hour.

Meanwhile prepare the rest of the vegetables.

In a large casserole, preferably terracotta or enameled cast iron, heat the olive oil over medium heat and when hot enough to make a piece of pepper sizzle immediately, add all the peppers and fry, stirring frequently, until they are just tender, about 8 minutes. With a slotted spoon or skimmer, remove peppers, leaving the oil in the casserole.

Add the onions to the hot oil and sauté until onions are well wilted, about 5 minutes.

Stir in the garlic and cook 1 minute longer.

Add the potatoes and cook them, stirring frequently, for about 3 minutes.

Rinse the eggplant cubes very quickly under cold water (no more than a few seconds), then pour them out onto a clean dish towel and pat dry.

Add eggplant cubes to the casserole and stir with the rest of the vegetables and oil for about 3 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper, stir well, then adjust heat to the lowest possible, cover pot and let simmer very gently for about 30 minutes, until the eggplant and potatoes are totally cooked and tender.

Add the olives, capers, and basil. Stir, uncovered, for about 3 minutes, to blend the flavors.

Cool and serve tepid or at room temperature, correcting salt and pepper just before serving.

VARIATION: You can add a dried hot pepper pod or crushed hot red pepper to the sautéing onions. Or fry a few coarsely chopped hot fresh peppers along with the sweet red peppers. Zucchini cubes are sometimes included in this dish, too. If you do add zucchini -- up to about 2 cups of cubes -- add another tomato as well.

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