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.
One of the classic dishes of Mexico is chiles en nogada: poblano chiles stuffed with shredded pork (picadillo) and topped with walnut sauce (nogada), and pomegranate seeds. Supposedly the dish was invented in the city of Puebla in 1821. The green poblano chiles, white walnut sauce, and red pomegranate seeds symbolize the colors of the Mexican flag. In season, chiles en nogada is a popular dish throughout Mexico , especially on September 16, Mexican Independence Day.
This is not the season. Fresh walnuts are not available and pomegranates don’t appear until late summer. Still, I thought about making the dish when I located some walnut halves in the freezer I am under instructions to clear out. I also saw some nice looking poblanos in the supermarket. As well, the walnut sauce sounded too complicated, so I decided to stuff the chiles with some pre-cooked, pre-shelled shrimp from the meat counter and cremini mushrooms from the refrigerator drawer. Then I topped it all with crema, the Mexican version of sour cream. The final dish still turned out green, white, and red because I used some tomatoes in the stuffing.
As a side dish, I made a tomatillo salsa with chipotle. That took only a few minutes and gave a little extra kick for those who wanted it. Avocado slices finished things off for a festive and surprisingly light dinner.
Shrimp-Stuffed Poblano Chiles
Fresh poblano chiles
Poblanos roasted and charred over open flame
Shrimp, mushroom, tomato, onion, and cilantro mixture
Shrimp-stuffed poblano with crema, tomatillo-chipotle salsa, and fresh avocado
Roast poblanos over an open flame until the skin is evenly charred. Place in a zipper bag, seal, and let rest until cooled. Then remove the charred skin under running water, slit one side, remove seeds and core, dry, and set aside.
- In a small sauté pan over medium heat dry roast the walnuts until lightly browned and the oils have begun to be released. Stir frequently. Be careful not to burn. Remove from the heat, cool, chop coarsely, and set aside.
- In the same sauté pan, heat the olive oil over a medium flame. Add the quartered mushrooms and sauté until they are soft and lightly browned. Drain, cool, and set aside.
- In a medium bowl, combine the shrimp, walnuts, mushrooms, shrimp, tomatoes, scallions, cilantro, and lime juice. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Stir in the optional adobo to suit your taste.
- Fill the prepared poblano chiles and arrange on individual plates. Drizzle with crema, and serve.
Roasted Tomatillo-Chipotle Salsa
Years ago, the first time I made this for my chef son-in-law, he liked it so much that he copied the recipe to the collection he keeps in his laptop. The salsa is refreshing and quite different from the usual bottled kinds. You can make it as hot as you like by varying the number of chipotles and the amount of the adobo sauce. Tomatillos, along with tomatoes, belong to the nightshade family, but they are more tart than tomatoes, stay green when ripe, and are covered with a papery husk that needs to be removed before eating or cooking. They can be eaten raw, but the tart flavor is not very good, in my opinion. Roasting them mellows the flavor. Tomatillos used to be hard to find except in Mexican grocery stores, but now they are in nearly every supermarket. Chipotles are actually smoked jalapeños. You can find them canned in a spicy adobo sauce.
Tomatillos with their husks still on
Tomatillos husked and ready for broiling
Chipotles in adobo sauce
Remove the husks of the tomatillos. Then broil them for 15 to 20 minutes on a baking sheet that has been lined with aluminum foil. Turn occasionally. Remove from the broiler when the skin has dark brown spots all over and the flesh is soft and somewhat watery.
- In a small skillet, sauté the chopped onion in the olive oil until soft and translucent. Do not brown.
- Transfer the onion to a medium bowl. Chop the tomatillos finely and add them to the onion. Add more adobo sauce if you want the salsa to be more piquant. Stir in the vinegar and cilantro. Correct the seasoning with salt and pepper.
- Serve as a dip with tortilla chips or as a condiment with a main course.
I am sure that my UK blogger friends are looking at this thinking, “What in the hell does he know about shepherd’s pie?” They are probably right even though this is one of my all-time favorite comfort foods. Detractors should be aware that the US Southwest is sheep country, and we eat a lot of lamb. It is also true that we have a hard time resisting putting green chile in just about everything. I suspect that someone has even made green chile ice cream.
Cooked lamb ready for the pie
Canned chopped green chiles
I have tried to be true to the basic recipe while making it a uniquely Southwestern (USA, that is) by using local ingredients. That means roasted Hatch green chiles, asadero cheese ( a cheese that is made with a method similar to that used for mozzarella. Curds are cooked gently in hot water and then stretched. It is popular in Mexico and the southwestern United States, but if you can’t find it you can use mozzarella or even Monterrey jack.) You could also use the Mexican cheese, queso fresco, and if you can’t find that, fresh farmer’s cheese will do. As with real shepherd’s pie, the main ingredient is lamb.
Ready for the oven
Americans often like to douse their shepherd’s pie with ketchup (I hear another UK shudder), but this version seems to cry out for pico de gallo. This is a salsa made with fresh ingredients. The name means “rooster’s beak” in Spanish. There are several explanations for how the name came to be, but none sound very likely.
Baked and ready to eat
Southwestern Style Shepherd’s Pie
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 pound ground lamb
- 8 ounces, green chiles, chopped (fresh, frozen, or canned) Heat according to your preference
- ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
- 2 tablespoons dried Mexican oregano, shredded between your palms
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- ½ cup water or vegetable stock
- salt and pepper to taste
- 2 medium russet potatoes, peeled and cubed
- 4 tablespoons butter
- ½ cup heavy cream
- ½ cup asadero cheese, chopped or grated
- ¼ teaspoon Cholula hot sauce (optional)
- salt and pepper to taste
- 2 tablespoons butter, melted, for top
- Heat the oil in a medium frying pan until it shimmers. Add the chopped onions and cook until translucent, stirring frequently to prevent browning.
- Add the ground lamb and continue to stir until the lamb is lightly browned
- Stir in the green chiles, cumin, oregano, and garlic. Continue to cook for a few minutes until the ingredients are well combined. Simmer for another 5 minutes.
- Stir in the flour and stir until everything is well coated. Cook long enough (5 minutes or so) so that the flour loses its raw taste.
- Add the water or stock and stir until the gravy thickens. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Add more water if you want a thinner gravy. Set aside for final assembly
- In the meantime, peel and cube the potatoes. Put them in a medium pot with salted water. Bring to the boil and boil for 20 minutes or until the potatoes are soft.
- Drain the potatoes and pass them through a potato ricer. Stir in the butter, cream, and grated cheese. Add a dash of hot sauce if you wish and correct the seasoning with salt and pepper
- Butter the insides of an oven-proof casserole. Pour the meat mixture into the prepared dish, top with the mashed potatoes, and paint with melted butter
- Bake in the middle of a pre-heated oven at 325° for about 60 minutes or until the top is lightly browned.
Pico de Gallo
Pico de Gallo
- 1 large, ripe tomato
- ½ yellow onion, coarsely chopped
- 3 green onions, cleaned and coarsely chopped, including the green tops
- 2 fresh Anaheim chiles, seeded and coarsely chopped
- 1 jalapeño chile, seeded and chopped (optional)
- juice of 1 lime
- A generous handful of cilantro leaves, chopped coarsely
- salt and pepper to taste
- Blanch the tomato for 10 seconds in boiling water. Then peel, seed, and chop coarsely
- Combine all of the ingredients in a medium bowl. Adjust the seasoning, and chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
- Serve like any other salsa. Use generously on the Southwestern Style Shepherd’s Pie.
Southwestern style shepherd’s pie with pico de gallo on the side