East European summer vegetable casserole

I must confess that I don’t normally associate the words ‘East European’ with the word ‘summer’. This cool part of the world is more renowned for its long-cooked meat stews, hearty potato dumplings and rich cabbage dishes than a sprightly summer vegetable casserole that wouldn’t look out of place on a Mediterranean table.

You could call this dish ‘East European ratatouille’ if you wish. However, the origins of this famous stew – called ‘gyuvech’ – lie in Turkey. (“Gyuvech’ is the Turkish word for a special earthenware pot in which the vegetables are cooked). From Turkey, the dish travelled to the Balkan states, and is now popular in Romania, Hungary, Croatia, and Bulgaria. Just like goulash, there are many national and regional variations, with each family adding its own signature. This is a broadly Bulgarian version of the dish – though serving it with sour cream rather than yoghurt would make it more Hungarian.

However you serve or eat it, the casserole is very simple to prepare and tasty. The key is in using the best, plumpest, freshest vegetables. Choose okra which are very tender to touch and not fibrous. Green beans, mushrooms, various types of pumpkins and squashes are also good – experiment with vegetables of your choice, varying them according to the seasons. You may omit the optional garnishes, but the yoghurt or sour cream is a must. Serves 6.

1 medium aubergine (eggplant), chunkily diced
6 tablespoons virgin olive oil
2 medium green or yellow courgettes (zucchini), thickly sliced
2 medium red onions, trimmed, peeled and cut into 8 wedges each
6 oz/ 150g okra, trimmed on both ends and left whole
1 lb/ 450g fresh tomatoes, chunkily diced (no need to skin)
2 small red and yellow peppers (capsicum), trimmed, seeded and cut into squares
1 heaped tablespoon sweet or hot paprika
Salt and pepper
A large bunch flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

Optional garnishes (use one or more of the following):
Several sprigs of fresh savoury, dill, tarragon, or celery leaves
Fried eggs, or hard-boiled eggs – shelled and cut into wedges
Feta, or other feta-like white cheese, cubed
Green or black olives, pitted

To serve:
Plain yoghurt or sour cream
Rye bread or caraway seed bread

1. Pre-heat the oven to 190C/ 375F/ gas mark 5.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large, heavy frying pan. Sauté the aubergines and courgettes for around 5 minutes until they are starting to soften and become lightly browned.
3. Pour the remaining oil in a large oven-proof dish (earthenware if you have it), and place the empty dish in the pre-heated oven for 5 minutes.
4. When the oil is heated through, take the dish out and put in the aubergines, courgettes, onions, okra, tomatoes, and sweet peppers. Sprinkle with paprika and salt and pepper.
5. Stir the vegetables gently so that they are evenly coated with hot oil, paprika and seasoning. Place the dish back in the oven without a lid, and bake for 1 hour. The aubergines and okra should be tender and thoroughly cooked, whereas all the other vegetables should retain some bite.
6. Remove the stew from the oven, check for doneness, and adjust the seasoning. Sprinkle with parsley and stir gently. Top with any of the optional garnishes you are using.
7. Serve hot, accompanying each portion with yoghurt or sour cream, mixing up the hot vegetables with cool yoghurt/ cream as you eat.

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