Monday, August 8, 2011

Summer Harvest In a Pot

So tonight I wanted to make a ratatouille, which is basically a ragu of summer vegetables which originated in the Provencal region of France.  The basic recipe is comprised of eggplant, zucchini, bell pepper, tomatoes, onions, garlic and herbs, all simmered with olive oil.  I've made this dish countless times since I first learned to cook.  Mom used to present it often at the table, so like all good French mothers she handed it over.  And like any good French daughter and new fiancee, I conjured up the dish on a seemingly ancient gas range in the first home Brian and I ever shared.  I presented the plate of this colorful concoction to him, with a nice baguette.  The response: that's really good, but is that all there is for dinner?  Where's the meat??  I do like to try to have one meatless dinner a week, but apparently this dish was not going to pass muster on such evenings unless I tweaked the recipe, a lot.  Ratatouille is certainly a prefect side dish for any Mediterranean meal, but I really love it as a main dish.

First, here is my version of the original recipe, sans meat, followed by a couple of creative ways I came up with to bulk up the meal:


4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 
2 onions, chopped
8 cloves garlic, chopped
2 medium eggplant, cut into large cubes
3 zucchini, thickly sliced
1 green bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1 yellow bell pepper, coarsely chopped
4 ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon fresh basil, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, chopped

Heat the olive oil in a 7-quart dutch oven over medium heat.  Add the onion and saute until translucent.  Add the garlic, saute for another minute.  Add the eggplant, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant starts to brown.  Add all remaining ingredients and stir to combine.  Bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer for about an hour.  For a saucier texture, use a lid.

From there, some ideas for serving that I've come up with include:
- adding a can of chick peas and a cup of pitted kalamata olives to the pot, then serving over a bed of couscous
- placing a broiled portobello mushroom cap on top of a bed of wilted spinach and then ladeling the ratatouille over top.

This is a recipe that just screams to be played with, and is friendly on the ingredients.  Try adding whatever you have on hand, and substitute.  If you don't have a green pepper but you have a red one, no problem.  Want to try using white eggplant instead?  Go ahead.  Try using only half of the zucchini and substitute the other half with yellow squash.  It's all good, get creative.  The ratatouille police will not storm your kitchen and cart you away in handcuffs, I promise!  Although they may come knocking at your door with their plates held out.

And the final incarnation of my ratatouille, the one which is presently simmering on the stove, the aromas permeating the whole house, is one which gets a big thumbs-up from Brian, one which your carnivorous other half will heartily indulge in:


Use the above recipe, plus eight chicken drumsticks.  First, sprinkle the drumsticks with salt and pepper. Place in the heated olive oil and brown all sides of the chicken.  Remove chicken and set aside.  Proceed to follow the above recipe, starting with sauteeing the onions.  When adding the last ingredients, also add the chicken.  Stir so that the chicken doesn't all just sit on top.  Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat, and simmer for an hour.  (serves 3-4)

While I have not yet tried it, I'm willing to bet that browning some Italian sausage instead of the chicken would be fantastic also.  Either way, I recommend serving the ratatouille with some good bread or rolls.

Ratatouille is an excellent way to help utilize all those end-of summer vegetables harvested from your garden.  I only plant herbs in my garden, as we have too many hungry furry guests in my area to have any produce thrive.  For tonight's dinner, I visited my local farm stand and purchased all of the necessary vegetables, all grown locally, very fresh, colorful and flavorful.  The herbs I gathered from my own crop.  While I was at the farm stand, I also found some luscious locally grown blackberries to pick on later this evening.  The rest of tonight's repast: an arugula salad with homemade lemon-olive oil dressing, herbed rolls, and a bottle of peach wine from a Long Island winery.  As I always say, summer is the time to relish in fresh produce, and a good time to help support your local growers as well.  So here is yet another way to incorporate some of those gorgeous garden gems into your next meal.

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