Tag Archives: eggplant

NOT EXACTLY RATATOUILLE

One of my favorite stalls at the farmers market is run by two young women who always have friendly greetings and interesting offerings. They have bunches of several varieties of basil along with many other herbs. Earlier in the season they had garlic scapes, fava beans, and a wide variety of Asian vegetables. They have bins and bins of tomatoes. But they also have an amazing selection of eggplants: not just the big purple tear drops that my grandmother grew but also white, variegated, Japanese, Italian, long, and green varieties. On my last visit I found eggplants that I had never seen. They were labeled as “Indian”, but their distinctive characteristic was that they were only about the size of a hen’s egg. They looked so cute that I bought them, although I wasn’t sure what I would do with them. You could stuff them with shrimp, Cajun-style, for individual servings. You could make an eggplant tapenade, but that would subvert the whole idea of miniature vegetables. I guess you could steam them and serve them by themselves. Of course, if you  think of eggplant you think of ratatouille, so I bought some tomatoes, squash, peppers and onions as well.

I have long thought of ratatouille as a dish that is delicious but labor-intensive. That’s because the first time I ever prepared it years ago I followed Julia Child’s recipe exactly. Each vegetable was cooked separately and slowly to maintain its shape and color before combining with all of the other ingredients and then simmered gently to meld the flavors. In short, Julia’s version is not a dish that you start when you get home from work. The mystique has even been amplified by the wonderful Disney Pixar film, Ratatouille.  In the movie, the signature dish prepared by the rat was an elaborate layering of slices of eggplant, squash, tomato and pepper. Beautiful to behold. And if you go to the web these days there are several versions of the recipe that use a similar artful arrangement of vegetables. Again, not something you would whip together before the evening news.

I think of a farm family sitting at their dinner table in Provence. I suspect they enjoy a good ratatouille but I doubt that it is in delicate layers. For that matter, a good shakshuka in Israel or bibimbap (add some beef and rice) in Korea may employ the same or similar ingredients without a lot of fanfare in their preparation. In other words, ratatouille should be easy to make and still be wonderfully delicious. This recipe just tosses the vegetables together, uses mushrooms, and adds a poached egg – definitely not authentic ratatouille, but a good way to use miniature Indian eggplants.

RECIPE

Not Exactly Ratatouille

Ingredients

  • 6 small Indian eggplants
  • 2 small zucchini
  • Kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 6 small white onions
  • 6 medium mushrooms
  • 4 small ripe tomatoes (about 4-5 inches in diameter), halved
  • 1 large green bell pepper, seeded and slice into ¼ inch thick rings
  • 1 small can (8 ounces) tomato sauce
  • ½ cup dry white wine (optional)
  • ¼ teaspoon ground thyme to taste
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 eggs, poached

Method

  1. Trim the tops of the eggplants and slice them in half lengthwise. Do not peel. Slice zucchini in ¾ inch rounds. Sprinkle the cut vegetables generously with Kosher salt and place in a large sieve over a bowl for 30 minutes to draw out water, Blot dry with paper towels. Over a high flame, grill the vegetables for a few minutes until lightly browned with grill marks (if desired). Remove from the grill and set aside until ready for assembly.
  2. Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven or lidded oven-proof vessel over medium heat. Add the grilled eggplant and zucchini along with the onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, green pepper, tomato sauce, wine and seasonings.
  3. Cover the Dutch oven and transfer to the middle of an oven preheated to 300°F. Bake for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the vegetables are fragrant and tender. If there is too much liquid, remove the cover during the last 15 minutes of cooking to reduce.  Adjust the seasoning and serve, topped with 2 poached eggs for each serving.

 

 

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RATATOUILLE

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.

Suggestions

  • 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.

 

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SANTA FE RESTAURANTS 4: REAL FOOD NATION SUPPER CLUB

We have been going to the Real Food Nation Café for years. The casual atmosphere and the creative food have always hit the spot for lunch or Sunday brunch. I have even been on a photo shoot in a workshop with Francesca Yorke, making images of the wonderful and beautiful herbs and vegetables they grow in their extensive on-site garden. But even though we have talked about it many times, we have never made it to their culinary other-half, the Supper Club. Last night we were able to fill that gap in our Santa Fe experience, and it was well worth the effort.

Maturing eggplant in the Real Food garden

Squash blossoms

Eggplant blossoms in the Real Food Nation garden

Travel to the restaurant is a scenic 2o-minute drive north on I-25 or on the crowded Old Pecos Trail. The café is in a converted gas station, and you might miss seeing the compact square building across the parking lot. That is the Supper Club with its own parking area and a welcoming front door. Inside you will find a small, well-appointed dining room and a friendly staff. It is small – only 22 seats including several at the bar overlooking the open kitchen – so reservations are highly recommended. The problem with that is that the Supper Club does not have its own number in the phone book, so when you call the café they have to transfer your call, sometimes to the consternation of the person answering the phone. During our visit we were granted our own key, so to speak. The direct line is 505-466-2440 and the email address is info@realfoodnation.biz. They’re not on Open Table, either, so a direct call for reservations is needed. The other little idiosyncrasy you need to be aware of is that they are open only Wednesday through Saturday from 5:30 pm to 9 pm. All of that says plan ahead, but if you do, you won’t be disappointed

Dining room in the Supper Club

Water glasses

The dining room was pleasant, mostly two-tops with a couple of four-tops, comfortable leather chairs, and sunny windows with Roman shades if the sun gets in your eyes during Daylight Saving Time. The music would not be my choice – some Frank Sinatra and light jazz/pops – but it was not intrusive and certainly not so loud as to drown out your dinner companion’s conversation. The service was friendly and attentive. The wine list was small but well-chosen and well-priced with full-bottle, half-bottle, and by-the-glass selections. There was a good selection of beers, coffee and tea, soft drinks, and bottled waters as well.

All of that put us at ease in anticipation of a good meal. The bread got a mixed vote from me. The little ciabatta rolls were crisp on the outside with a flaky crumb and extremely tasty. The sliced French bread was dense and ok, not great. But we didn’t come for the bread, anyway.

Menu

Right now the restaurant has a prix fixe menu, three courses for $35. The menu changes frequently, so call ahead or check the web site. Last night there were two choices of appetizer, three choices of entrée, and two choices of dessert. Even at that, chosing was difficult because everything sounded delicious.

Carrot parsnip soup

Susan chose the carrot parsnip soup. The golden bowl came to the table laced with a pool of green-hued extra virgin olive oil.

Frisée salad with balsamic vinaigrette and guanciale

I chose the frisée salad which came with guanciale – little lardons of pork jowl lightly crisped

Sweetbreads

We both chose veal sweetbreads which, when well-prepared, is one of our favorite dishes and not commonly available. We were not disappointed. The sweetbreads were perfectly cooked and seasoned. They were complemented by tender Swiss chard and a “hash” of turnips, leeks, and carrots. The sweetbreads were sauced with a fragrant, flavorful mushroom demi-glace.

Hazelnut forestier with three chocolates

Profiteroles

Both desserts were beautifully presented, and a fitting end to the evening. The hazelnut financier came with three different kinds of chocolate. The profiteroles were classically done, and fortunately not too big as I could have eaten more than my diet allows.

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