Two Saturdays ago the temperature hit 101 degrees Fahrenheit in Athens. Spyros and I had decided to spend the afternoon at the Marousi farmer’s market which, in retrospect, probably wasn’t a good idea (it was mine). At mid-day, the hot, dry air made breathing difficult, even a slow walk seemed a major undertaking. Nonetheless, we plodded through the stands and scanned the produce. At the end of our trip, we loaded our little Dihatsu with plastic bags of tomatoes, onions, basil, sour cherries, Bing cherries and a whole watermelon. We were provisioned for the week.
On Monday, two additional produce bags—courtesy of my in-laws—appeared at our side door, filled with eggplants, green peppers, zucchinis, and a few green tomatoes. In Greece, family is never too far away, bearing gifts of food.
“You can make Briam,” Spyros said grinning, as he carried the bags to the kitchen. “We’ve got tomatoes from the farmer’s market and now these eggplants and zucchini. Briam would be perfect.”
I agreed. Briam is the ultimate Greek summer dish, a Mediterranean Ratatouille of vegetables that get slow-roasted in olive oil until they caramelize. It’s a great way to use up produce and isn’t too finicky about vegetable ratios or flavor combinations (though eggplant and tomato should participate). Briam is more more of a method than a recipe; you simply chop (a lot), add oil and bake.
Briam belongs to a group of foods termed ladera or oily food in Greek, which—I know—sounds a bit unappetizing. I’ve always thought a better translation might be ‘oiled foods’ but the meaning would be the same. Ladera dishes—Briam, Imam Baldi, chickpeas in the oven, baked gigantes beans—are foods baked in olive oil. Before refrigeration, it was thought that the oil would help extend the life of cooked foods in the warm weather. Today, the oil is probably unnecessary, but it’s tasty and characterizes these dishes. For Briam and its cousins, it is essential to forget about the calories. Anyway, the fat is a healthy one and aids absorption of the vegetables’ vitamins; it also holds the flavor from the seasoning. To me, Briam’s oil-enriched tomato sauce is one of the many tastes of Greek summer.
So I made Briam with the vegetables in our house. For a twist, I threw in some sliced Jalapenos (Briam usually isn’t spicy). I really liked the flavor, how the spice contrasted with the sweet eggplants. Sweet and spicy is another of my favorite summer flavors. It somehow matches with the heat we experience here. What about you? What flavors say summer where you are?
6 small eggplants, cut into 1 ½ inch half-rounds
6 small zucchinis, cut into 1 inch half-rounds
2 medium onions, coarsely diced
4 green onions, both white and green portions, sliced
3 green peppers, cored, seeded, cut into quarters, then cut into 1 inch pieces)
8 plum tomatoes (cored, coarsely chopped)
5 garlic cloves, sliced
2/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 hot peppers (any variety, I used jalapeño), sliced and seeded according to your heat preference
1 cup olive oil,plus more if needed
Salt, pepper, and oregano to taste
- Place eggplant in a strainer and sprinkle generously with salt. Set aside for 30 minutes, to allow the eggplant’s liquid to release. Rinse well and pat dry with paper towels. Meanwhile, prepare the remaining vegetables.
- In a large baking pan, combine the eggplants, zucchini, onions, green onions, green peppers, plum tomatoes, garlic, parsley, hot peppers and oil. Season with salt, pepper, and oregano and stir well. If your baking pan is overcrowded with vegetables, transfer half of the mixture to another pan. Drizzle with more olive oil, if you find that the vegetables are not well-coated.
- Preheat oven to 190oC (375oF). Cover the baking pan with foil and bake for 2 hours, stirring every hour (if you’re baking the Briam in 2 trays, be sure to rotate them every hour, as well). Remove the foil and bake for a further 40 minutes until the sauce has thickened and some of the vegetables have caramelized.
*Briam is tasty served over steamed brown or white rice with feta or a little yogurt. You could also serve it over pasta or next to baked poultry or pork.