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.
The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen by Paula Wolfert. Copyright © 2003 by Paula Wolfert. Photographs copyright © by Christopher Hirsheimer. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.