CAN’T KVETCH ABOUT GUVETCH
I needed a quick, but tasty vegetable dish for Simchat Torah, so I turned to an old favorite, guvetch. (Technically, it was a yahni, but most Romanians subsume all of the various vegetable stews under guvetch.) Although many versions call for eggplant, we had none in the house and actually didn’t miss it. I threw together some red peppers, carrots, green squash, kohlrabi, tomatoes, and onions, sprinkled in a little salt and dash of olive oil, simmered it atop the stove until the carrots were tender (about 30 minutes), then stuck the pot on the platta (large heating plate) until dinner. Little fuss or muss. The results were sweet and delicious. My mother kept asking me what spices I added, but besides the salt none. The cooking caramelized the sugar in the vegetables, while the juice from the vegetables melds, producing a succulent dish.
Types of earthenware pots typified Near Eastern cooking throughout much of the Biblical and Talmudic periods when these vessels were arranged over horseshoe-shaped clay stands with the kindling underneath lit through the opening. The Turks adopted various clay utensils, slow cooking pieces of meat and vegetables, either over a fire or in a pit oven, becoming a preferred approach of Ottoman cuisine. As new produce arrived in the Near East, such as eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers, Turkish cooks readily included them into these stews. During centuries of occupation of the Balkans, the Turks introduced their slow-cooked vegetable stews as well as many of the ingredients common to them to that region, including the rustic baked djuvec, named after the thick-based, thin straight-sided earthenware vessel, appearing similar to a flower pot, in which it was cooked and frequently served. In Romania and Bulgaria, the dish was pronounced guvetch, also variously spelled ghiveci, ghivetch, guvec, and yuvetch, and quickly became a staple, ranking among the most popular of foods. Similar ragouts are common throughout the former Ottoman Empire and adjacent areas, including the Sephardic khandrajo (“rags” in Ladino), the Greek briami, and the Provencal ratatouille (derived from touiller, from the Latin tudiculare, meaning “to stir” or “crush”). Nonetheless, ratatouille arrived in that region relatively late in history, first recorded in the early twentieth century, while eggplant stews were already mentioned in Turkey in the fourteenth century.
When baked uncovered in the oven, the stew is a guvetch, while a covered baked stew is technically a kapama, from the Turkish kapamak (to cover). A yahni or yachni, similarly named after a Persian earthenware vessel in which it was originally cooked, entails covering the pot and stewing over a fire. A little water is added to uncovered stews, while no water is used when cooked covered. In eastern Turkey, Armenia, and parts of Greece, a synonym for guvetch is known as a turlu, from the Turkish for “mixture,” although some cooks contend that turlu should never contain eggplant, while others insist it should have pieces of mutton. Sephardim in Turkey typically cooked turlu in an oya, the Ladino for olla, a Spanish squat, rounded, wide-mouth earthenware pot.
As with most plebeian dishes, there is no definitive recipe. However, to be authentic, guvetch must contain a selection of vegetables and be slow cooked, the contents varying based upon personal preference, habit, and availability. A guvetch can be made with a few or more than twenty vegetables. Frequently, leftover vegetables and soup went into a guvetch. Most vegetable stews are actually better when made in large quantities and frequently when reheated the next day, the flavors having an opportunity to meld and mellow. Middle Eastern vegetable stews tend to be cooked until all the ingredients are very soft; any sign of crispness is a sign of a bad cook. Stews containing summer vegetables — eggplants, green beans, okra, peppers, tomatoes, and zucchini — are a guvetch yaz (summer stew). Guvetch de riz is cooked with rice. Those predominantly made with winter squash and various root vegetables — carrots, celeriac, potatoes, and turnips — are called guvetch kis. Other commonly added items include cabbage, leeks, lima beans, mushrooms, potatoes, and even sour grapes. Jewish versions tend to be vegetarian. Although an earthenware pot enhances and contributes to the flavor of the stew, it can be cooked in any oven-proof vessel or simmered in a pot. The flavors develop and meld during the long baking period. Seasonings in these stews are generally rather mild, the essential flavor derived from the combination of vegetables and the cooking process, not any specific content. Characteristic of Romanian cookery, there must be garlic and plenty of it, sometimes both minced and whole. Turks generally add a little lemon juice. Romanians brought guvetch to Israel where it is now commonly sold in containers in most supermarkets. But it is so easy to make at home, and tasty, and a great way to use those vegetables in the refrigerator, that I don’t know why more non-Romanians don’t do it.
Romanian Vegetable Stew (Guvetch) P
(6 to 8 servings as a side dish)
2 cups (14 ounces) peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped plum tomatoes
4 medium onions, sliced
2 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound green beans, trimmed, or 1 pound okra, trimmed
4 small green or yellow squash or any combination, cut into chunks
2 medium green bell peppers, seeded and sliced
2 medium red bell peppers, seeded and sliced
4 to 8 whole cloves garlic
1 to 2 large carrots, sliced (optional)
1 small head cauliflower, cut into florets (optional)
About 1 teaspoon table salt or 2 teaspoons kosher salt
Ground black pepper to taste
½ cup vegetable stock or water
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
In a large pot, combine all of the ingredients. Cover and simmer over a low heat until the vegetables are tender, about 40 minutes. Or bake at 350 degrees, uncovered, until the vegetables are tender and most of the liquid evaporates, about 1½ hours. Serve warm, at room temperature, or slightly chilled.
Romanian Baked Vegetable Stew (Kapama): Omit the water. Cover the casserole with aluminum foil and bake in a 350-degree oven until tender, about 1½ hours. Or use the water, and sprinkle the bottom layer of tomatoes with ¾ cup long-grain rice.
Greek Vegetable Stew (Yachni de Verduras): Reduce the garlic to 1 to 2 minced cloves and the water to ¼ cup. Add 3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill or 2 teaspoons dried oregano. In Step 5, stir together all the ingredients, cover, and simmer over very low heat until tender, about 40 minutes.