When our grandchildren visit us they often wind up watching our DVD of the Disney-Pixar movie, Ratatouille. Sometimes the grownups watch, too. It’s a charming story, and besides who doesn’t enjoy the fantasy of a rat winning three Michelin stars in a previously failing Paris restaurant? Even though it is a cartoon, the ratatouille served in the picture is a work of art. My friend, Jim Hastings, has tried to re-create it, and if you google images of ratatouille you will find that a lot of other folks have also created things of beauty.
Not me. I have relied on Julia Child’s recipe for over forty years. Even though it is an appealing dish, it is no competition for the rat’s over-the-top composition.
This is clearly the time of year for ratatouille. The essential ingredients are all at their peak. The fresh vegetables are where the real beauty of the dish lies. Eggplants (aka aubergine in the UK and brinjal in India) are displayed in a mosaic of colors and shapes. There are the traditional dark purple giants and the slender variegated Japanese varieties. I chose some cream and purple striped globes that were just the right size for cooking without peeling. As for tomatoes, if you are not lucky enough to have your own backyard supply, the farmers market is brimming with them, along with zucchini of just the right size, bell peppers, and beautiful onions.
Everyone knows how versatile tomatoes, zucchini, and bell peppers are. Most home cooks have pages and pages of recipes for them. Eggplant is also versatile, but many cooks don’t seem to know that. My grandmother grew her own eggplants, but she only did one thing with them. She cut them is slices, unpeeled. Dipped them in egg and flour and fried them . They were delicious, but they could get to be boring. In Louisiana, eggplants et stuffed with spicy seafood. A memorable dinner from years ago featured eggplant casings stuffed with shrimp and served as a beautiful turban mold. . Our host struggled over that for hours. Eggplant instead of pasta in lasagna is common, and eggplant Parmigiano is a classic. Chef Brucia in Shreveport did a delicious variation with eggplant rounds topped with chicken breast supremes, tomato sauce and Parmigiano and then baked.
With all of that, my favorite way to cook eggplant remains Julia Child’s ratatouille. I won’t repeat her recipe. You can find it in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I, page 503. I will add a few cooking tips that I have learned. Just be advised that although it is not difficult to make, ratatouille is time-consuming. Don’t try to make it at the last minute. After you’ve made it, you have to decide how to serve it. It is good enough to stand on its own, but Julia suggests pot au feu if you want to go to all that trouble. I served it with a slice of ham, and was a combination to my liking.
Ratatouille still life
Add a leek
Ready to serve
Served with a slice of ham
- There’s no need to peel and cut the eggplant into strips, as cooking will soften the peel, and slices will hold their shape better.
- Cut a little cross in the ends of the tomatoes before you blanch them. They will peel more easily.
- Avoid oversized zucchini as they will wind up being waterlogged.
- The new “snacking peppers” – red, yellow, orange – make a good substitute for green bell peppers.
- Leeks make a good substitute for onions.
- Use good olive oil for the essence of Provence.
- As Julia Child suggests, letting the dish sit overnight seems to improve the flavor.
In my last post, I mentioned that I had been charged with salad for a dinner party. The main course was going to be barbecued ribs. Potato salad seemed out as too heavy. Besides I wasn’t sure if someone else would bring that. It’s also no longer the season for pasta salad, so I thought about one of my old favorites, three-bean salad. Someone reminded me that it seemed sort of old-fashioned, but it still sounded good to me. Then I thought about quinoa. Light, refreshing, and a little bit unusual. I usually make it with gandules or pigeon peas, but they were nowhere to be found in the local markets, so I reconsidered the three-bean salad and decided to combine my two top options.
If you have never cooked with quinoa, you will find it to be an amazing ingredient. It is a seed that comes from plants originally grown in South America but now cultivated throughout the world. It is used like a grain, but it is not a grain so it does not have the gluten that so many people worry about these days. It is rich in protein and reportedly has all of the essential amino acids, so it certainly sounds healthy. You do need to be aware that it is also loaded with saponins. These are naturally occurring detergents that make the quinoa taste soapy if you don’t wash them off. Many pre-packaged quinoa products have had the saponin removed, but the detergent may still be present in bulk quinoa. In either case, it is probably a good idea to rinse the quinoa before you cook it. You can do this easily by placing the amount you plan to use in a fine-mesh strainer and rinse it under a spray of cold water until all of the foam subsides – maybe a minute or so. Drain it well and get ready to cook it. Besides being tasty, cooked quinoa is also beautiful. The seeds burst open and reveal a delicate little curl. My wife, the botanist, is not sure but thinks the curl is probably the endosperm.
Except for cooking the quinoa and preparing pickled mushrooms (as I described in my last post) this is pretty much a chop and dump recipe, so it is very easy to prepare.
Black, white, and red beans
Beans mixed with quinoa
Green, red, orange, and yellow bell peppers
Diced bell peppers
Mixed diced bell peppers
Cherry tomato halves
Quinoa, Mushroom, Corn and Three-Bean Salad
- 1 cup washed quinoa
- 2 cups water
- salt and white pepper
- 1 batch pickled mushrooms (see recipe in previous post)
- ½ red onion, diced
- ¼ cup each, green, red, yellow, and orange bell peppers, diced
- ½ cup corn kernels, fresh or frozen, cooked and drained
- 14.5 ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
- 14.5 ounce can red or pinto beans, drained and rinsed
- 14.5 ounce can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
- 1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
- vinaigrette (recipe below)
- In a small saucepan, bring the water to a boil and stir in the quinoa. Return to the boil, cover, and reduce heat to the simmer. Simmer for 15 minutes. The seeds should have absorbed all of the water, burst open, and tender. If they are not cooked, remove the lid and boil gently until all of the water is absorbed. Season with salt and white pepper, drain, cool, and place in a large bowl.
- Stir in the mushrooms, red onion, diced bell peppers, canned beans, corn, and cherry tomatoes.
- Dress the salad to taste with 4 to 6 tablespoons of vinaigrette. Chill until ready to serve.
- In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, mustard, garlic powder, and salt and pepper
- Very slowly, a few drops at a time, whisk in the olive oil to form an emulsion.
- If the sauce separates, whisk it together again before dressing the salad.
Bayou Teche is one of the most important waterways in Louisiana. It is an ancient riverbed of the Mississippi River before it changed its flow several thousand years ago. Bayou Teche runs over a hundred miles before it empties into the Atchafalaya River, another former route of the Mississippi. The bayou served as the watery route of entry for the Acadians from Canada during their forced migration into Louisiana. The bayou flows through the heart of Cajun country, including some of its most famous towns and cities. Breaux Bridge is well-known for its zydeco, dance halls, and crawfish. St. Martinville is quaint and home to great Cajun food. New Iberia is close by Avery Island, the home of the famous Tabasco Sauce. So, with a name like “Crabmeat Teche,” this dish must be pure Cajun.
The original recipe comes from the classic, “River Road Recipes” first published by the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Junior League in 1959 and self-described as “The Textbook of Louisiana Cuisine”. Many of the recipes reflect the times, calling for canned mushroom soup, flavored gelatin, and lots of convenience foods. At the same time the book is a trove of honest-to-goodness Louisiana recipes, and for that reason you can usually find a copy of the cookbook in most Louisiana homes you visit.
The recipe for Crabmeat Teche was contributed by Mrs. Roy Dabadie. I guess she lived in Baton Rouge at the time, but with a name like that, I shouldn’t be surprised if she originally hailed from someplace along the Bayou Teche. The recipe used some of the convenience foods of the time, so I have made some small revisions. Nonetheless crabmeat Teche is still a 1950s casserole, but it tastes a lot better than tuna noodle bake.
Baked crabmeat Teche casserole
You’ll need a fresh vegetable to complement the casserole. I made a simple salad to go with it: sliced seasonal tomatoes, sprinkled with chopped fresh basil, coarsely-grated mozzarella cheese and your favorite vinaigrette. It seemed to be an ideal foil for the rich casserole.
- 1 large bell pepper, chopped
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 3 ribs celery, chopped
- 8 ounces crimini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 4 tablespoons bacon drippings
- 4 slices very dry toast (dry enough to crumble easily)
- 3 cups fish stock or chicken stock, divided
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
- ½ teaspoon celery salt
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano, pulverized between your hands
- Louisiana hot sauce, to taste
- ¾ cup chopped fresh parsley
- 1 pound can crabmeat, picked over for shells
- ¾ cup cracker crumbs
- 3 tablespoons butter
- In a medium skillet over medium-high heat, sauté pepper, onions, celery, mushrooms, and garlic in bacon drippings until tender, about 10 minutes.
- In a small bowl, crumble the dry toast in 1½ cups of fish stock. When the stock is completely absorbed and the toast crumbs have softened, add them to the skillet along with Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper, celery salt, and oregano. Continue to simmer, stirring frequently until well combined. Adjust flavoring with hot sauce to taste.
- Add the parsley and remaining 1½ cups of fish stock, stirring until well combined.
- Add crabmeat, and mix thoroughly. Then pour the mixture into a well-buttered casserole.
- Sprinkle the top with cracker crumbs, dot with butter, and sprinkle with paprika.
- Bake for 20-30 minutes at 350° in the middle of a pre-heated oven. IF casserole is made ahead and refrigerated, increase baking time to 45-60 minutes.
Serving of crabmeate Teche with caprese salad
Serves 4 to 8, depending upon serving size
The first touch of autumn is definitely here, and the bell peppers are abundant at the local farmers market. They come in the standard-issue green along with yellow, orange, red, and variegated colors. And they are big and just begging to be stuffed with your favorite filling. My mother always used her favorite meat loaf mix. That’s pretty much the traditional approach, but you can branch out with whatever filling pleases you, such as rice, mixed vegetables including fresh corn, or even shrimp or crab. Suit yourself, but enjoy one of the real treats of the fall season. This recipe is easy to make and uses Italian sausage to provide not only the protein but also aromatic Italian seasonings. Depending upon your preference, choose hot or sweet (mild) sausages.
Stuffed peppers ready to bake
Stuffed Bell Peppers
4 fresh bell peppers, free of blemishes
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 large Italian sausages, casing removed
6 white mushrooms, washed and chopped
1 ½ Cups cooked brown rice
2 eggs, lightly beaten
½ Cup panko + more for the top
2 Tablespoons tomato paste
6 ounces cream cheese, softened at room temperature
2 ounces Swiss cheese, grated and divided
salt and pepper to taste
1 Tablespoon butter
1. Prepare pepper casings by slicing off the top to form a cap. Reserve the caps. Remove the seeds and ribs of the peppers. Place in boiling salted water, return to the boil and boil for 10 minutes. Remove, drain, cool, and set aside.
2. In a medium skillet heat the oil on medium and combine the chopped onions. Sauté the onions until they are translucent but not browned. Add the sausage, stirring to break apart, and cook until well browned. Stir in the chopped mushrooms and sauté an additional 3 minutes. Cool
3. Transfer the sausage mixture to a medium bowl and combine the brown rice, eggs, panko, tomato paste, cream cheese, and half the Swiss cheese. Salt and pepper to taste. Stir until well combined.
4. Spoon the stuffing mixture into each of the pepper casings. Sprinkle the tops with the remaining Swiss cheese and panko and dot with butter. Cover with the reserved caps and place in a baking dish sprayed with vegetable oil spray.
5. Bake in the middle of a preheated 350° oven for 45 minutes or until the peppers are slightly blistered and the cheese has melted. Serve while still warm
Ready to eat
Yield: Serves four