Friday, September 12, 2014

Farm Market Finds: Ratatouille Pasta

I was never much of a vegetable fan. I was okay with salads, and potatoes, of course.  Canned corn and green beans were always good. But I hated peas, carrots, zucchini, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, peppers, onions (unless they were cooked and in something), and the list could go on.  I didn't even want to think about eggplant or beets.  Of course, for the most part, veggies came to the table boiled, and that's just the way it was.  Fresh, local produce from the farmers' market just wasn't something that was available often. But my dad grew up on a farm, so he had developed a taste for enough vegetables that we had a fair variety, even if they came from a can.  I still don't like most canned vegetables (exceptions still being corn and green beans), but I have become a big fan of many vegetables if they are prepared in a way that allows their natural sugars to shine through. Usually, that means a lot of heat, and a lack of moisture, such as you get by sauteing, roasting, and grilling.

It doesn't get much better than a big sheet pan full of Brussels sprouts, tossed with a bit of olive oil, coarse salt and pepper, and well-browned with some crispy bits (unless you happened to have a little bacon grease fall into the pan, totally by accident--that could make it a little better). But even cubed up carrots, beets, potatoes and winter squash benefit from a bit of time in a hot, dry oven.  Broccoli, with some garlic and olive oil before roasting, finished with a little lemon zest and parmesan cheese after coming out of the oven, is delicious.  Zucchini and asparagus are, in my opinion, best sauteed until there is some nice browning and a bit of shriveling.  Even fresh green beans on the grill until they shrivel are a fantastic alternative to the usual boiled.  

So I have learned to appreciate vegetables for what they bring to the table, and that has led to some fantastic discoveries.  Ten years ago, I probably wouldn't have given a thought to ratatouille, even after watching the cute movie by the same name.  However, having learned how to cook in that time, watching the movie made me want to give it a try.  

I think that the first time ratatouille made a blip on my radar was when I was watching Food Network Star several years ago.  Melissa D'Arabian, who ended up winning that year, prepared ratatouille for a panel of guest judges.  They absolutely loved it.  She explained that her mother-in-law taught her a trick to remember what is essential to ratatouille.  EZ-POT.


That stuck with me, and I always remember it at the market when I am mentally going through my grocery list with ratatouille on the menu.

The first time I actually made it, I sort of, kind of followed a recipe.  But, as will happen when you're not that organized, I had the wrong amount of some ingredients, didn't have the right herbs, and accidentally used too much broth.  And it was delicious!  So I kept the mistakes, and haven't looked back.  It's a pretty traditional version of ratatouille, except that I serve it with pasta.  For kids, and honestly, for me, too, the veggies just needed something to break them up.  It can be somewhat texturally monotone.  Al dente pasta gives you something to chew on, and it also just serves as a background for the bright flavors of the peppers, onions and herbs.  The flavor is all still there, but it's not quite so in your face.  

So let's get started.

This is a dish that involves a fair amount of prep, and it's a good idea to get everything ready to go before you turn the stove on.  First up: tomatoes.

I've been canning tomatoes lately, so I am in the groove.  Boil some water, cut an x in the bottom of each tomato, dunk it in the boiling water for 45 seconds, then use a spider to lift it out, and dunk it into a bowl of ice water.  Then the peel slips right off.  However, I am at a point where I have several ripe tomatoes, lots of under-ripe tomatoes, and a few over-ripe tomatoes.  So I pretty much went at the over-ripe ones with no mercy, cutting the soft spots, the burst seams, and anything that seemed the least bit gross, away.  Down the disposal they went.  So I had lots of little pieces and halves to use up today, and that's what I did.  

Once I had the tomatoes peeled, I broke them apart enough to scoop the seeds out over a sieve set over a bowl.  Doing this catches the juice in the bowl, and keeps the seeds separate.  Discard the seeds, but save the juice.

Now it's time to start the eggplant.  You can keep the skin, or lose it.  The skin is such a lovely color, but I can't take the texture of cooked eggplant skin, so I peel.  Then I slice it into thick discs, between 1/2" and 3/4".  Place them on a cooling rack set over a sheet pan with 4 sides. Sprinkle heavily with coarse salt, and let them sit for about 10 minutes, or until you see several drops of liquid on the surface of each slice. Then turn the discs over and salt the other side. Let them sit like that while you prep all the other veggies.

Peel and large dice a couple of onions, and mince about 4 cloves of garlic.

Remove the stem, seeds and ribs of 4-5 sweet peppers.  I like to use lots of colors here, and I happened to have some orange, yellow and red around, so that is what I used,  Cut these in a large dice, as well, and set aside.  

Finally, cut 3-4 medium large zucchini (or equivalent of smaller zucchini, about 3 1/2 cups) into large dice, 

And now, it's time to cook.

Heat up a large skillet (not Teflon), and lube it up with about a tablespoon of olive oil.  Once the oil is shimmering and very hot, add the onions.  Sprinkle with a pinch of salt, and toss to coat lightly with the oil.  Let the onions cook, stirring occasionally, until you see a bit of nice golden color, but don't let them burn.  Place another large skillet, or better yet, a heavy Dutch oven, over low heat on another burner.  Once you have nice color on the onions, scrape them into the Dutch oven.  They will sit there, over low heat, while you saute all of the other veggies, and will become somewhat caramelized.  Yum.

Bring the pan back to screaming hot, add a little more oil, and then add half of the peppers.  At this point, I do not add any more salt.  This is because I want the peppers to brown a bit, and if I add salt, it will pull some of the juice out, and they will end up simmering.  They will have plenty of time to get soft and release their juices later.  Right now, I want to concentrate the sugars and get some color on them.  Once they look right, stir the onions a bit and scrape the peppers on top of the onions. Repeat with the other half of the peppers.  Once all the peppers are in the Dutch oven, you can season them with salt.

At this point, you may need to deglaze the pan.  If you haven't done this before, you may be freaking out, thinking that you burned something, and your pan is ruined.  That couldn't be further from the truth.  All that burnt-looking stuff is actually quite delicious, but it has to be liquified to take advantage of it.  Fortunately, that's easy.  Place the empty pan back over high heat and let it get quite hot and dry.  Now pour some water into the pan and immediately begin scraping the brown away with a wooden spoon.  It will come up surprisingly easily, and turn the water a lovely deep brown color.  Once you have most of the brown off of the pan, pour the liquid into a measuring cup.  You shouldn't need more than half a cup of water for each deglazing.  Save this liquid for a little later.

Now, move on to the zucchini and the eggplant, which you can shake off and dice while the zucchini cooks.  Just add a bit of oil as needed between batches, and let them cook long enough to get some color before moving them over to the Dutch oven.  I actually do the zucchini and eggplant in three batches to avoid overcrowding the pan, which can also lead to steaming.  I also deglaze again after the zucchini is all done. Remember to add some salt to each layer as you move it over to the Dutch oven.  

After the eggplant is done, I deglaze again, but this time, since there's not a lot of flavor, I am really just doing it to make cleanup easy later.  I just discard this water.

Now just tear the tomato pieces into smaller bits, using your fingers.  Add the flesh to the Dutch oven, and add any juice to the measuring cup. Now give it all a stir and appreciate the gorgeous colors of the dish that you are creating.  Really, appreciate it, because it's not going to look like that much longer.

Now, you can use vegetable broth here, but I happened to have lots of juice left from canning tomatoes, and I have plenty year-round because I can the leftover juice, as well.  So I just use the juice to measure up to 3 cups of liquid, combined with the deglazing liquid.  Add this to the Dutch oven, and turn the heat up to medium.  

When I first made this, I was supposed to use fresh thyme and rosemary.  I didn't have any. I was even out of dried thyme.  But while digging through the spice rack, willing the thyme to appear, I noticed a little jar that I had bought for fun while on a Penzey's run, and decided that this was as good a time as any to give it a try.

Herbes de Provence is an herb blend.  Think a French version of "Italian seasoning".  It usually includes thyme, savory, marjoram, fennel seed, and rosemary.  It has a pleasant floral aroma, and for good reason, because it also often uses lavender.  It's wonderful.  I add nearly a tablespoon, but you can add less to start, and add more later, if you decide that you love it as much as I do.

Once the liquids start to simmer, turn the heat down a bit and put the cover on the pot.  Now you get to walk away.  It can stay there for an hour or so.  Or, if you are uncomfortable leaving the house with a pot on the stove, place an oven-safe pot into a 375 degree oven.  

Once I got home from picking the kids up from school, this is what I found.  And the smell.....mmm.

The final step is an idea that I saw on  Place a colander inside of a large bowl, and pour the ratatouille into the colander. Stir it around a bit to help the juices drain.  Lift up the colander, and pour the juices into the pot. Put the colander back into the bowl, because the juice will continue to drain for some time yet. Every once in a while, add whatever juice has collected in the bowl, into the pot. Bring the juice to a boil, and then turn the heat to medium and let it simmer hard until reduced by half and you have a slightly thickened, rich-looking sauce.  Finally, add the veggies back to the reduced sauce and stir to coat.

Now usually, I serve this with rigatoni, which is a nice, sturdy, large pasta that stands up to the chunky veggies.  I had planned to run out and buy some after school, while the juice was reducing. But I got caught up with helping my 7 year old son with his convoluted math homework (courtesy of Common Core), so I had to settle for the penne from the pantry.

And here it is. It's delicious, comforting, homey, and nutritious.  Give it a try sometime, and if necessary, pop the movie in to get the kids to give it a try.  It worked for us! 


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