Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Man of La Mancha

It's funny how sometimes you think of something and all of a sudden it seems to be everywhere. Magazines will devote entire stories to something you casually mentioned over lunch. The next thing you know, ads for it are all over the city and suddenly it's on TV, too. This is exactly what happened to me recently with a traditional Spanish dish that I'd all but forgotten about until a few weeks ago. There I was, flipping through the Dining section of The New York Times and finding nothing particularly interesting, when a cursory glance at the Health and Nutrition section led to a culinary epiphany. A few days later the same dish appeared on the excellent cooking show Made In Spain with Jose Andres during his episode on the region of Castilla La Mancha. Thinking it was mere coincidence, I noted both mentions of the dish and continued with my normal cooking regimen.

It wasn't until earlier this week when the dish in question made its third appearance in my life, that I was forced to sit up and take notice. It appeared on the second episode of Spain...On the Road Again with Mario Batali and Mark Bittman. Not surprisingly, it also made its way into the program during their culinary exploration of Castilla La Mancha. This all makes sense since the dish currently haunting my life is called Pisto Manchego, and originated in this central region of Spain for which it is named. It's a delicious and often times vegetarian dish not unlike a ratatouille, which had a resurgence in popularity recently thanks to the movie of the same name. So it's no surprise that all of a sudden people are reminded of dishes that are similar and have finally taken notice (myself included). There are a few variations on the dish, ranging from adding eggplant and sweet bell peppers, to my favorite, cured meats and sausage.

No longer able to ignore the signs I finally broke down and made a pisto for dinner. Although it is like a ratatouille in its most basic form, what separates it from the classic French version is it's wonderful topper: fried eggs. The pan is served tableside and often the dish is consumed straight from the pan as well. Each person can decide what to do with their egg, plunge into it, pulling the luscious golden yoke through a red sea of sauce and vegetables, or eat it on its own as treat. I prefer the former since the natural sweetness and texture of the yoke are a perfect foil for the slightly tart tomato sauce.

I take some liberties in making this dish that are not traditional, like grating the onion instead of chopping it. I don't like the texture of mushy chewable onion in a dish like this, so instead I grate it and let it dissolve into the sauce where it permeates it with flavor. I also like making a year-round version with canned whole or crushed tomatoes when fresh ones are not in season. I also stick to the slightly sweeter tomato sauce that we always ate in my house growing up, which counteracts the tartness (and often times tinny flavor) of canned tomatoes. I came really close to keeping this dish veggie but couldn't help myself when I actually found affordable, fresh chorizo sausage at the meat market. I browned it in the pan where I'd cook the rest of the meal and then set it aside until right before I added the egg. The eggs themselves are cooked right in the pan with everything, quickly poaching atop the pisto. Here's my final recipe:

Pisto Manchego

4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, grated
3 garlic cloves, finely minced
2 pounds zucchini or green and yellow summer squash, cut into matchsticks or diced
1 (28-ounce) can tomatoes, drained (liquid reserved) and chopped

2 tsp sugar
Freshly ground pepper
3-4 eggs (depends on the capacity of your pan)
1 large or 2 small fresh chorizo sausages

1. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a non-stick skillet (at least 10 inches wide). Pull chorizo out of its casing and add to the pan, breaking it up with a wooden spoon or spatula. Cook until browned and remove to a plate and set aside.

2. Add remaining oil to skillet over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and cook until both are fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add zucchini or squash and salt generously. Cook, stirring often until softened slightly, 5-7 minutes.

3. Add tomatoes, sugar and freshly ground pepper. Cook uncovered on medium-low heat, stirring often, until zucchini is cooked, occasionally using a fork to mash it. Taste one last time for salt.

4. When zucchini is cooked through, stir in the chorizo, then crack eggs over mixture, sprinkling each with a pinch of salt. Cover and cook over medium-high heat until egg white is firm and the yolk is still runny. Serve with crusty bread for dipping. Enjoy!


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