Monday, June 22, 2009

Summer: Cooking Alone--Ratatouille

So it's summer. At last!

I'm definitely one of those people who revel in the growing season and summer is the easiest time to find so many things at their peak of deliciousness. The Farmer's Market is still the best source, but even the grocery store can't help but carry really good produce.

But I am rarely alone when I cook these days. My son, now 7 1/2 months old, is my almost constant companion these days, so I've gotten deft at cooking very simple, quick things while he ruckuses around in his excersaucer that we've hauled into the kitchen. He watches me cook and I say things like, "Spaghetti squash! Mama hacks up the spaghetti squash!" or, "Mama shells the SHRIMP! Mama wipes the mushrooms! Never WASH the mushrooms, lovey-loo - WIPE them!" He smiles and laughs.

He always thinks it's brilliant, whatever I'm doing. Until he wants to be picked up.

So this past Saturday, Mr Tumnus took a nap with his Daddy (the napping was mutual, I believe) and I was alone in the kitchen. So I made ratatouille.

This is certainly a high summer dish and rewards you for choosing the freshest and sweetest of vegetables: eggplant, zucchini, onions, red peppers, tomatoes, herbs. Really, all it lacks is corn - but for that there's succotash! (But that, as Kipling would say, is another story. Or post. Let's update him a bit.)

And it takes time. But it's not like bouillabaisse time (which can be grueling with all of the stock! and the chopping! and the sauteing! and the hey hey hey!). It's caramelization time, which allows a person to think thoughts peacefully, and idly stir the ingredients, perhaps read a bit of a novel, listen to NPR or good music, and actually think about what they're hearing.

I'm not much into celebu-chefs these days, but I made Tyler Florence's version, because I perceived that he used anchovies, which indicated to me that this dude not only new what he was doing but also knew what umami is (another story! another post!) and that was what I wanted.

I got out my iPod and put it on shuffle, which is a total pleasure since it's easy to weed out songs that are hateful or dumb on such a device. I heated the extra virgin olive over a slow heat and peeled and chopped the eggplant. In it went. I stirred it, letting it soften and then wilt and then melt a bit. Meanwhile, I chopped the zucchini. I read a bit of an old novel that I turned up in a box I hadn't unpacked from our move, just before Tumnus arrived. I scooped out the eggplant, set it to drain and added the zucchini.

Here I made a bit of a rookie error - I believed Florence when he said to add another 1/4 cup of olive oil. This was folly. I recommend that, while you will need to add oil after each new vegetable, you eyeball the amount - don't slavishly follow instruction! But yes, you will need plenty of oil for the eggplant and, as a friend of mine says, you will get fat but you must accept this and embrace it for it is delicious.

I scooped out the zucchini and set it to drain. Then I added chopped onion, garlic, fresh basil, fresh thyme and three mashed anchovies. I must tell you that an anchovy or two makes a huge difference in a dish. You won't taste them - the dish will just take on an added dimension of depth and earthy tang. Seriously. Go and buy a few tins of them. You'll use only two or three fillets in one dish, but they're so cheap you will not quail at this. Be brave.

The onions take a good while to caramelize. They smell heavenly. Anyone coming into your home will want to stay and will look hopefully at your kitchen door. I stirred them and thought my thoughts and listened to my music. I read a bit of novel. I stirred the onions. I thought about my past, as prompted by some of the music, and reached various conclusions both bittersweet and surprising. I rinsed the tomatoes.

When the onions were sweet-smelling and brown, the herbs wilted and the anchovies comppletely smoothed into the mixture, I added the tomatoes. These you cook until they wilt and then wither and then burst a bit. Really, cooking them longer repays the time - they become jammy, as properly roasted tomatoes will. Once they reached this state, I put the other vegetables back in and salted and peppered the dish and let its simmer to blend the flavors. The smell was toothsome indeed.

In fact, as soon as the baby was up, my husband wafted into the kitchen, like a Looney Tunes character, lead by his nose. The baby was thrilled to see me and buried his face in my shirt, breathing in the perfume of sauteed onions along with the smell of his mother. I have a very early memory of my father's hands smelling like the ginger and garlic he had been chopping, so I wouldn't be sorry to have my son remember my smell through the antique sweetness of caramelized onions.

The dish tasted delicious - like late summertime, when everything is sun-soaked and heavy with heat and brine and light. But it was missing something - it needs a little bit of acid and I had forgotten the balsamic vinegar! That was it. That tartness is essential - otherwise the different sweetnesses cloy. With the vinegar, it's easier to make out the different flavors of the ingredients.

We ate dollops of the warm ratatouille with hunks or cibatta and smears of soft goat cheese. Mr Tumnus sat in his high chair and ate his mashed banana. There was no rush, nowhere to be. My husband rolled his eyes heavenward. He ate more. he made inarticulate gestures at the dish with his spoon. He recovered enough to command me to make this "fortnightly" so that we'd always have some in the fridge to snack on.

Now THAT is a good plan for summer!

Adapted from Tyler Florence's Ultimate Ratatouille

3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 lb eggplants, peeled, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 1/2 lbs zucchini, cut in half and then into 1 inch chunks
3 anchovy fillets, smushed into paste
2 onions, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4-1/2 cup fresh basil, coarsely chopped
Leaves from 10 stems fresh thyme (or to taste)
2 pints cherry or grape tomatoes
Balsamic vinegar to taste
salt and pepper

Note: cooking times are approximate. It's more important to get the vegetables to the proper state than stick to timing.

Prepare a large plate with paper towels. Heat 1/3 cup olive oil over medium heat. Add eggplant and season well with salt & pepper. Cook down until very wilted and soft, about 10-12 minutes. With a slotted spoon, fish out eggplant and put on platter to drain.

Add a bit more olive oil to the pan so that the bottom is coated, but isn't deep. Add zucchini. This needs the least amount of oil to cook. Don't drown it. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Cook until very tender but still keeps its shape, about 10-12 minutes. Add to platter to drain.

Again, make sure that there is generous olive oil coating the bottom of the pan (more so than for the zucchini). Add the onions, herbs, garlic and anchovies. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Cook until onions are caramelized, but not dark brown. Add the tomatoes and cook them down until they are bursting and soft. Return eggplant and zucchini to pan, stir gently and cook slowly for 20 minutes (turn heat to med-low) until flavors blend. Season to taste with salt & pepper.

Add a "splash" of balsamic vinegar and taste. Add more in small increments until the taste pleases you.

JTC's Notes:

I find that you can serve this as a dip with hunks of bread or make sandwiches out of it. If you go the sandwich route, make them a bit ahead and wrap them firmly in plastic wrap and refridgerate until time to eat. The flavored oil will soak the bread delightfully.

You can also serve a little dish of balsamic along side the ratatouille and people can wet their bread with the vinegar before piling the vegetables on.

You need a firm, assertive bread with this, such as cibatta or other peasant bread - thin or airy bread will not stand up to it!

For true summer decadence, add smears of soft goat cheese to your sandwich or appetizer.

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