Mallorquín Casserole of Eggplant, Peppers, Sardines, ana Potatoes with Caramelized Tomatoes

Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Medium

  • Serves

    4 to 6

Appears in

The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen

By Paula Wolfert

Published 2003

  • About

Late last summer I finally tasted the famous Majorcan dish tumbet. Tumbet, which literally means “flattened,” is an uncomplicated, oven-baked casserole of fried eggplant, peppers, and potatoes, topped with a thick, delicious sauce of fried ripe caramelized tomatoes and sometimes garnished with pieces of fish. It's a bit like a Provençal ratatouille without the herbs, a Tunisian chachouka without the harissa, Sicilian caponata without the capers and olives, despite which it isn't missing anything. For me it's just about perfect!

Tumbet travels well, meaning you can make it just about anywhere in the world provided you use vegetables in peak seasonal condition. First and foremost, you need a good extra virgin olive oil for frying, as it's this component that coaxes flavor from the vegetables. The secret of a good tumbet is to cook the ingredients separately, then combine them at the end for baking.

Some food writers say you don't need to salt eggplant before frying. I disagree. I will never stop salting Mediterranean eggplants. Many of the new eggplant hybrids that don't require salting to remove bitterness have very little taste: ironically, they still need salting, not to rid them of bitterness but to bring out some flavor. Also, salting tightens the flesh of eggplant so it won't absorb as much oil during frying. Finally, salting helps to create a good creamy texture.

The peppers used in tumbet should be sweet rather than hot, and, preferably, thin-skinned, the kind you find at farmers' markets in late summer. I use late-summer New Mexican chile peppers that have turned red, sweet, and delicious. Another choice would be pale green frying peppers sold in late summer at farmstands.

The potatoes are only partially cooked to avoid hardening, then finished off in the final baking. The tomatoes are fried until their natural sugars create caramelization.

Tumbet often accompanies grilled or roasted meat or fish, but I also serve it warm or at room temperature as a course unto itself, with the addition of fried fish baked right into the layering.

A final note: Back in the 1980s, Juan Martinez Rivas, a well-known landscape painter and gourmet from Mallorca, was interviewed on Spanish television about tumbet, his favorite dish. He made the astonishing comment that the very best rendition he had ever tasted was served in the home of a Basque friend who lived in California, where it was prepared by a Chinese chef. As I said, this is a dish that can really travel.

Ingredients

  • 2 Italian eggplants, pounds each
  • Coarse salt
  • pounds New Mexican sweet red peppers, or sweet pale-green frying peppers, cored, seeded, and thinly sliced into rings
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 pound ripe fresh tomatoes, cored and quartered
  • ¼ cup garlic cloves, left unpeeled, rinsed and drained, plus 1 garlic clove, minced
  • pounds red potatoes, peeled and sliced ¼ inch thick
  • 2 cans (4 ounces each) top-quality oil-packed whole sardines
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 tablespoons flour, for dusting
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon sugar

Method

  1. Peel the eggplant and cut into ½-inch slices. Salt each slice, placing the layers in a nonreactive colander or on a plate. Cover and let drain as long as possible, anywhere from 30 minutes to overnight.
  2. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Put the peppers on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Sprinkle with a little oil, toss to coat, then spread them out on half the baking sheet. Pile the tomatoes and whole garlic cloves in their skins on the other half of the baking sheet and lightly sprinkle them with olive oil. Bake for 15 minutes.
  3. While the peppers are baking, put the potatoes on a second baking sheet lined with parchment paper and toss with a little olive oil; spread the slices in a single layer. Bake the potatoes along with the peppers for another 30 minutes, until almost tender but not brown.
  4. Meanwhile, drain the sardines and divide them into fillets, removing the bones. Arrange in a 5- to 6-cup shallow ovenproof dish. Sprinkle with 1 to 2 tablespoons fresh olive oil, the chopped garlic, and half the parsley. Let marinate while you fry the eggplant.
  5. Rinse the eggplant slices, squeeze gently to remove the moisture, and pat dry with paper towels. Heat enough oil to cover the bottom of a large skillet over medium-high heat until it quickly browns a piece of bread. Working in small batches, and reheating the oil between batches, fry the eggplant slices on both sides until golden brown. Drain on paper towels.
  6. Remove the sardines from the baking dish, leaving the marinade behind. Dust the fillets with flour and fry in the remaining oil until crispy. Drain on paper towels.
  7. Remove the vegetables from the oven. Leave the heat on. Rub the oily sardine marinade all over the inside of the baking dish. Place the cooked potatoes on the bottom and season with salt and pepper. Top with the eggplant and peppers and season lightly with salt and pepper. Scatter the crispy sardine fillets on top.
  8. Add a tablespoon of oil to the skillet and set over medium-high heat. Squeeze the garlic out of the skins and, using a food mill, press the tomatoes and garlic cloves directly into the skillet, add the sugar, salt, and pepper and cook, stirring, until the tomatoes lightly char and reduce to about ½ cup. Dilute with ⅓ cup water, bring to a boil, spread the tomato sauce over the vegetables, scatter the remaining chopped parsley on top, and bake in the oven for 30 minutes.