Monday, September 29, 2008

She's Back in the Kitchen & Taking Names

After a brief hiatus spent job-hunting and adjusting to having two young children in school, not to mention aimless hours searching for gas stations with fuel to sell, I've returned to the kitchen, my source for solace in the approaching autumn. The light through the window has changed, it's amber coming through at a different angle, backlighting the spider web on the porch. My soul seeks comfort food, but my warm house isn't quite ready for day-long braises and Dutch ovens bubbling over with stewed chicken and bready dumplings. Ratatouille, thick with chunks of eggplant swimming in fresh tomato, I've found, speaks to my soul and lets me walk away from the table without needing a starch-induced nap.

There are at least two approaches to preparing ratatouille: the one-pot method, where each item is chopped and added to the pan gradually. This yields a tasty, but homogeneous stew. My preferred method requires roasting some of the vegetables, namely the eggplant, to give some textural variety to the final product. My favorite is derived from the Gourmet Cookbook. Here is the recipe, with my variations noted in parentheses.


4 large tomatoes, peeled and chopped
8 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 cup copped fresh flat-leaf parsley (I left this out, due to my garden's parsley crop failure)
1 cup plus 2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil (I don't think I used this much. I just added a bit as I went along)
1 (2 lb.) eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes (I use 3 or 4 Japanese eggplants, peeled, halved lengthwise and sliced into 1-inch cubes)
2 1/4 tsp. salt (I didn't measure salt, but tasted as I went along)
2 large onions, (halved and then cut into 4 wedges per half)
3 assorted bell peppers, cored, seeded and cut into 1-inch wide pieces
4 medium zucchini, quartered lengthwise and cut crosswise into 3/4 inch think pieces (I used yellow summer sqash instead and peeled it first, just because I always do)
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Combine tomatoes, garlic, parsley, basil and 1/3 cup oil in a 5-quart heavy pot, bring to a simmer and cook, covered, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes break down and sauce is slightly thickened, about 30 minutes.

(The instructions then describe salting eggplant, which I did not do because I used the Japanese eggplants. They are petite and do not require salting to remove the bitter liquid.)

Meanwhile, heat 3 tablespoons oil in a 12-inch skillet over moderate heat. Add onions with 1/4 tsp. salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 10 to 12 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer onions to a large bowl. Add 3 more tablespoons oil to skillet and cook bell peppers, with 1/4 tsp. salt, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes. With slotted spoon, transfer peppers to bowl with onions. Add 3 more tabespoons oil to skillet and cook squash with 1/4 tsp. salt, stirring occasionally until softened, 8 to 10 minutes. With slotted spoon, transfer squash to bowl with other vegetables.

While squash is cooking, add remaining oil to skillet and cook eggplant over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, 10 to 12 minutes.

Add vegetables, remaining 1 tsp. salt, and pepper to tomato sauce and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are very tender, about 1 hour. Season ratatouille with salt (and a few generous grinds of black pepper). Cool, uncovered, and serve warm at room temperature.

A container of ratatouille in the fridge is as good as having a jar of peanut butter in the pantry. This versatile stew can be eaten warm or at room temperature. It's also excellent with garlicky sausage bits stirred in or perhaps some flaky white fish, which reminds me of my uncle's seafood stew served when I was (quite a bit) younger.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Labor Day Grill

Ta Tonka Fromage Burgers
Grilled Sweet Corn
Creamy American Potato Salad
Glazed Carrots
Fudgy Brownies

The Ta Tonka Fromage is a family joke -- it's bison burgers with cheese. On a vacation in New Mexico, we learned that the Native American word for buffalo is Ta Tonka, so we celebrate that little nugget of knowledge each time I make the burgers. I mix a pound of bison meat with 1/2 of an onion, finely chopped, and splashes of ketchup, soy sauce and whatever steak sauce is kicking in the fridge. This mixture is shaped into patties, grilled and served with American cheese slices, because I'm the kind of food snob who only buys Kraft Singles, not the store brands. You'll find very few convenience foods and "cheese food" type ingredients in my home, but I like Kraft singles for superior meltability and kid-friendly packaging.

The potato salad is from America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook and it uses a technique that I wrote about for Greek potato salad - tossing the warm potato chunks in seasoned red wine vinegar. This was a very good potato salad, with the expected dollop of Dijon in the mayo, sliced, boiled eggs and chopped sweet pickles, not pickle relish. It was quite tasty and the recipe page shall be bookmarked.