In praise of pisto and a perfectly balanced meal

by admin on February 22, 2009 · 10 comments

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There’s a recipe that keeps popping up and I’ve been trying to ignore it, because surely something that simple isn’t going to make a decent dinner?  It’s called pisto, a kind ratatouille that is a regular feature in Spanish home kitchens. Having given in and tried it, I’m now completely sold on the idea.  It’s not the pisto alone that has entranced me, but the traditional serving suggestion; the familiarity of rice with a homely, tangy tomato sauce and topped with a perfect runny egg. Pisto is a new stock item on our list of easy weeknight suppers but don’t let me limit your ideas.  For starters I’m sure this would make a perfect weekend brunch.

As a meal this is environmentally sustainable, nutritionally well balanced and stress free to make. What’s not to like?

It’s so darn easy
This is not an instant dinner (a misleading term if ever there was, as we discussed last week) but it is a forgiving sort of a meal to make, with very little active input required and little that can go wrong. Ximena Maier of Lobstersquad explains the attraction of making pisto “What I like about it is that it has a very relaxed rhythm. You only have to follow the order of ingredients, and throw them in the pan as soon as they´re chopped. There´s no anxiously waiting for something to be just right, no stressful wild chopping while something may burn. Things will happen while they must, and a minute up and down isn´t a big deal.”   In fact if you have a rice cooker then cooking dinner becomes a very leisurely affair indeed. 

The eggs are gently cooked in little dents made in the pisto with the back of a spoon.  This results in all of the gooey loveliness of a poached egg but with none of the scariness of egg poaching for the uninitiated (though there are many reasons why it is worth learning how to poach an egg if you haven’t already).

Nutritional balance
Pisto with brown rice and an egg is the very model of a well balanced meal.  Vegetables predominate the dish and are there in a range of colours which intimates that you are about to eat a good variety of vitamins and antioxidants. Eggs provide low fat protein and are cooked without the addition of any extra fat. The carbohydrate source is wholegrain. The total amount of fat used in the recipe is small and monounsaturated in nature.  And there is synergy between the ingredients too with the brown rice, egg and vegetables combing to give a reasonable hit of iron and the added benefit of vitamin C from the peppers which enables your body to better absorb these vegetarian iron sources.

Flexibility and Flexitarianism
I’m bound to offend some (Spanish) people with my messing about with the basic pisto recipe (then it’s not pisto, right?) but another very pleasing quality about using this as the inspiration for a meal is that you can adjust it a little according to what’s in the fridge.  If you want to make your pisto more seasonal and local you can; as it is mid Winter here I compromised with canned tomatoes in place of the traditional raw but used imported organic peppers.  An official common variation in Spain is to use eggplant (aubergine) instead of courgette but a carrot works just fine too.  And if you’ve got half a bag of spinach or another greeny leafy veg in the fridge then why not chuck some of that in too (I also keep frozen spinach which you can just chuck straight in from the freezer).

Brown rice is my accompaniment of choice but try experimenting with other wholegrains like buckwheat groats or quinoa. 

This is definitely a no meat required dish adding to its sustainable
credentials but the flexitarian among you might enjoy a bit of chorizo sausage for an occasional variation. 

Built in portion control
The sauce, rice and eggs are all introduced separately providing ample portion control opportunities. Looking for a light lunch? Reduce or skip the rice and just have one egg. My husband, who spends his evenings running and weekends cycling up huge hills needs more calories than me so he tends to have the pisto, rice and eggs with some crusty bread on the side.

Cook once, eat again later
Once you’ve made a big batch of the sauce the leftovers will sit happily in the fridge for about a week or freeze giving you a really easy dinner option on some busy weeknight when cooking is shaping up to feel more of a chore than a pleasure.

I’d really encourage you to make extra of pisto sauce ready for another day as it is really handy thing to have in the fridge.  You don’t need to eat it with rice and eggs; how about using it as a pasta sauce or adding a can of chickpeas for a vegetarian stew?  If you want to save some for another day stop just before the stage of adding the green leafy vegetables (which are best added at the last minute) and put aside any sauce that you don’t want to use today.

Other people making pisto
Pisto Manchego With Eggs from Marth Rose Schulman’s New York Times column as raved about last week
Winding down on a friday evening : Pisto from lobstersquad
Serious eat highlight a summery version of pisto to made with grilled vegetables
Not pisto, but I’ve also written about some healthy eating habits I picked up on holiday in Spain

Recipe for (a kind of) Pisto, with rice and eggs

Serves 2

1 tbsp olive oil
2 bell peppers, any colours
1 large onion
1 courgette or carrot
2 or 3 cloves of garlic
1 can chopped tomatoes
A handful or two spinach leaves or similar
Freshly ground black pepper
A pinch of red chilli flakes
A pinch of sugar
A pinch of salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Four free range or organic eggs
Brown rice (I use about 120g dry weight for two people)

Put a pan of water on for your rice or start it cooking in your rice cooker.

Warm the olive oil in a roomy pan (one that has a lid) on a medium heat. Start chopping the vegetables into bite size pieces and add them to the pan as you finish chopping them.  Start with the onions and then the garlic so that they have chance to soften, then add the courgette (or less traditional carrot) and then the peppers. 

Allow the vegetables to cook until the onion has softened a little. Meanwhile roughly chop your spinach into strips but don’t add this yet.

Add the can of tomatoes and the chilli, sugar and salt to pan. Cover with a lid and simmer until the rice is ready.  I aim for around 20 minutes of simmering; traditional pisto is often cooked for many hours but we want to eat dinner tonight and besides, all that simmering that will do the nutritional content of your vegetables no favours. Now is your chance to go and sit down for a bit or play on Twitter or whatever takes your fancy.

When the rice is ready, add the spinach to the tomato sauce and replace the lid to encourage it to wilt quickly.

Once the spinach has wilted, season the sauce with freshly ground pepper to taste.

Flatten the pisto down a bit and make four little evenly spaced dents using a wooden spoon pan. Crack an egg into each dent.  Replace the lid and leave on a medium heat and until the whites of the eggs are visibly cooked but for no longer than this if you want a runny egg (this is where glass pan lids come into their own).

Spoon some rice onto the plate and then top with the pisto and eggs.


monica February 22, 2009 at 20:23

Mmm, that sounds delicious. I LOVE poached eggs and I love this idea of poaching them in the (sort of) pisto. This also marries well with my love of chili and spinach. Mmm, I love simple meals like these. Especially ones that really bring out the best in a good egg!

ttfn300 February 22, 2009 at 23:38

i have been meaning to try poached eggs, and have been feeling a bit tired in the kitchen… this may be perfect :) especially since I LOVE b’fast and eggs!

Meeta February 23, 2009 at 07:25

Just love the freshness of this meal. It’s very much the type of meal we enjoy too. Your (kind of) pisto works really well and the egg is perfect!

Amanda February 24, 2009 at 15:27

What a gorgeous dish. I love anything topped with a runny egg–I can almost taste it now! Yum!

Helen February 24, 2009 at 19:22

Oh my goodness! I make something almost exactly like this! I had no idea it was an actual dish…

Sophie February 26, 2009 at 09:54

Monica – thanks, that’s why I thought I’d write about this one even though it is so simple. It’s often the easy everyday meals that are the most useful.
ttfn300 – poached eggs are definitely worth learning to make but this recipe is perfect for when you are a bit too tired to tackle poaching.
Hi Meeta – good to hear that you and your family make something similar. I wonder where your version evolved from; it’s always interesting how recipes travel and change internationally.
I know what you mean Amanda, a poached egg somehow makes any meal a bit more of an event!
Helen – it’s so simple, it’s more like a serving suggestion than a recipe isn’t it? I guess most cultures have their own take on similar dishes, for example the pisto is virtually ratatouille but with vegetables that are more preferred in Spain

Jennifer February 27, 2009 at 03:31

Perfect meal! looks great!

Alex March 1, 2009 at 15:24

Looks great! Another one for the must-try list!

rachel March 2, 2009 at 12:05

It sounds and looks delicious. I have made something rather like this before and it has been too long – thankyou.
I am a big fan of ‘egg on top.’ For a while it was fried eggs on everything (well almost) but since modestly mastering a decent poached egg, the fried ones have been sidelined, I agree poached egg skills are worth cultivating.
I really like your style – alot and am glad to have found you.

Arwen from Hoglet K March 8, 2009 at 06:15

This sounds great. Fairly simple and vegetarian. How I love runny eggs!

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