. . . more Ratatouille (Provençal vegetables)

dark purple eggplantRatatouille is a summer dish that gets us over the hump of too many zucchini, and maybe tomatoes. It’s enjoyable warm, cold, or room temperature–but it’s not an especially memorable dish.  Not usually–however, I’ve one recipe for it that is memorable.This is not the ratatouille that you put together in the slow cooker, or quickly; however, if you like ratatouille, you should take the time and effort to make this one. Go ahead and splurge on the saffron.That’s part of what makes this memorable.

The recipe from Simply French: Patricia Wells presents the cuisine of Joël Robuchon (see bibliography) gave entirely new meaning to ratatouille.

Provençal Vegetables (Ratatouille)

Adapted from Simply French, pp. 229-230. Serves: 8 to 10

Ingredients

  • 10 medium tomatoes
  • 2 medium onions finely chopped
  • 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Sea salt to taste
  • 1 green bell pepper, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1 red bell pepper, peeled and thinly sliced
  • Bouquet garni: several parsley stems, celery leaves, sprigs thyme, wrapped in the green part of a leek and fastened with kitchen twine
  • 4 garlic cloves minced
  • Freshly ground white pepper to taste
  • 1 teaspoon tomato paste (optional)
  • 6 to 7 small zucchini scrubbed, trimmed, and cut into matchsticks (about 1-1/4 pounds)
  • 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
  • 3 small eggplants peeled and cut into matchsticks (about 1-1/2 pounds)
  • Pinch of saffron threads (optional)

Preparation

  1.  Core, peel, and seed the tomatoes. Save as much juice as possible and strain. If strained juice does not measure 1 cup, add water as needed to bring to 1 cup. Finely chop the tomatoes and set aside.
  2. In a large skillet, combine onions, 1/4 cup oil, and pinch of salt. Cook over low heat until soft and translucent.
  3. Add peppers and pinch salt. Cover and continue cooking about 5 minutes more.ÒΛÓ
  4. Add chopped tomatoes, stir and continue cooking for about 5 minutes more.
  5. Stir in the tomato juice, bouquet garni, and garlic.  Taste for seasoning.
  6. Cover and simmer gently for about 30 minutes–don’t over cook–vegetables should not be mushy!
  7. If the tomatoes lack flavor, add tomato paste.
  8. In another skillet, while the tomatoes, onions and seasonings cook, heat 1/2 cup oil over moderate heat. When hot add zucchini and sauté until lightly colored (about 5 minutes). Transfer to colander and drain excess oil. Season with thyme and salt.
  9. In the same skillet, heat the remaining 1/4 cup of oil and sauté the eggplant until lightly colored. Transfer to colander and drain excess oil.
  10. Add zucchini and eggplant to the tomato mixture and taste for seasoning, add saffron if desired, and simmer gently for about 30 minutes.
  11. Serve warm, room temperature, or cold. Will keep covered and refrigerated for several days.

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This is not you everyday, get rid of the zucchini, ratatouille. It’s special occasion, peak tomato season, and it take time and effort, but if you invest the time and effort, I think you’ll agree that it is a fantastic dish. This best made when tomatoes are at their peak–you don’t want to expend this effort and use canned tomatoes or supermarket ones that have no flavor–that would be a waste of effort. Neither the tomato paste nor the saffron can overcome that deficit.

Watermelon Pecorino Salad

This is such an awesome salad–I’ve used feta, but I think the pecorino would be great as well. The combination of mint and salt and melon. . .

the chef mimi blog

It’s been a long time since I’ve purchased a cookbook. I’m a little embarrassed at how many I own, although I do use them. So I promised myself I’d wait a while. And then there it was.

I was in a cute shop while on vacation, and the cookbook practically screamed at me. The cover was beautiful, but I’m not one to only judge books by their covers. Especially with how sophisticated food styling and photography have become.

But this book was a little different in that there was cheese in the cover photo, which always gets my attention! And right there were two of my favorites – Humboldt Fog, bottom left, and a Foja de Noce wrapped in walnut leaves, top left, a Pecorino that I discovered from the last cheese book I purchased. In any case, I couldn’t resist the book, called “The Cheesemonger’s Seasons.”
download

The recipes are…

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Oven-braised lamb and garbanzo beans

It’s another grey day–unseasonably warm, but at least not hot, sticky, and terribly humid today–the kind of day when you need to smell something cooking–long, slow, and tantalizing.   I found lamb shoulder chops on special (2-1/2-pound package) at the grocery store, I decided to try the lamb/garbanzo slow-cooker thing in the oven since it’s not too hot (and I’ll use the oven to prepare a second dish for reheating tomorrow (acorn squash stuffed with Sicilian sausage).

Book coverThe slow cooker version of this concoction was really good, but I thought it could be improved by doing it in the oven. Even after reading the Cook’s Illustrated Slow Cooker Revolution (volume 1), I am still not a wild fan of the slow-cooker.  I use it because it does some things well, and is necessary at times to fit cooking into a working schedule.  The Slow Cooker Revolution has improved my slow-cooker results immensely, mostly because I’ve discovered some unusual ingredients that can improve flavor.

My impression was that many of these recipes required more preparation time than I would be able to put into a slow cooker recipe, given that I use it for utter simplicity.  I’m interested in seeing what comes from volume 2 of the Slow Cooker Revolution.  If I have to do a lot of preparation for the recipe, then I might as well not use the slow cooker.  I still find that I like over-braising when possible; however, I do find I’m using the slow cooker even more since I read the first volume of this book. That said, I still prefer oven braising, especially if I’m working at home.

Romertopf clay baker (oval)I had intended to do this in the Romertopf, (one of my favorite things for roasting and baking hearty, peasant-style comfort food in the winter) but by the time I had boned the lamb and added other ingredients, it wouldn’t fit in either of my small ones (great for single-serving cooking), and was not enough to fit in my large Romertopf (for roasting whole chicken, for example)–so it was the Dutch oven for today.

(Shoulder chops are reasonably priced, and the boning doesn’t take long if you use a boning knife rather than trying to do it with a paring knife or chef’s knife.  Those bone went into a saucepan with a tad of salt and some bay leaves to make stock.  After boning out, I had about 2 pounds of lamb, so that’s what I started with.)

Oven-braised lamb and garbanzo beans

lamb from chopsIngredients

  • 2 pounds lamb (from boned shoulder chops)
  • 2 14.5-ounce cans of garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
  • 3 large onions, chopped
  • 1 14.5-ounce can of fire-roasted, diced tomatoes with juice
  • 2 tablespoons of Hatch chilli powder (used for the slow cooker), but more added after tasting this halfway through cooking
  • 2 teaspoons of salt, or to taste
  • 1 tablespoon fresh Mexican oregano, minced
  • 1 cup water

PreparationIMG_7667

  • Put everything in pot
  • Cover
  • Pop it into the oven, and check for liquid in an hour
  • Go get laundry or whatever, then check liquid again

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In order to be as much like the slow-cooker, I did not brown the meat or cook the onions separately–just combined everything, covered, and put in a preheated, 300-degree Fahrenheit oven.  I added 1 cup of water to start, and checked in one hour but there was plenty of liquid.

On tasting, I found it needed more than the 2 tablespoons of chili powder so I added about 1 tablespoon more, stirred, covered, and let it continue to cook. There was plenty of liquid, so next time, I’ll not add any water–just rely on the juice from the tomatoes, onions, and meat.

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The stock made with the bones smelled really good–if more liquid had been needed during baking, I would use some of the stock.  There was some meat from the bones in the stock, but I not enough to spend time picking off, although I’m not compulsive about trying to get every bit off when I bone meat like these chops. Since I started the stock in cold water, the meat that was left was pretty flavorless, but the stock was good.

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There will be a next time for this–and unless I’m really pushed for time, or can’t leave the oven while I’m out, I’ll opt for the oven method to cook this–a much more complex flavor with the same ingredients, likely attributable to the bit of evaporation that takes place in the oven but not in the closed slow-cooker.

Getting this added flavor lead me to consider the energy used in the various cooking methods–the energy required for cooking is certainly part of the energy required to make that food edible–the energy  of production and transportation, and the cooking is all part of the picture: the footprint of feeding me. We cannot ignore the energy used for cooking when we talk about other energy costs associated with our food so I spent some time browsing to find information on different cooking methods.

In trying to research this issue, I’ve perused many different sources–and the gas/slow cooker comparison is difficult, and I get the feeling that the answer to which is more efficient is an “it depends” situation.

Interestingly, an article on slow cookers versus electric ovens from the University of Connecticut Sustainable Living suggests that there may not be a significant difference in energy use.  SFGate discusses gas versus electric energy use, which gets more complicated, but I’m not sure that there difference is significant enough to make me give up oven braising, even though I’d like to minimize my “carbon footprint” as much as possible. If my slow cooker requires eight or so hours of cooking, and my oven braise requires only two or three hours on low to medium heat, then it may be a toss-up, since the slow cooker doesn’t cycle, and the oven (gas or electric) does.

Oven braising in the wintertime helps warm the house so probably cuts my heating use some, but I’m certainly NOT going to oven braise in the summer and increase the use of air-conditioning.  There is lots of conflicting information out there on the ‘net.  The “best” I found was from the Consumer Energy Center (California Energy Commission)–from that information, I’m not going to give up oven braising for the slow cooker anytime soon, but I’ll still use the slow cooker for some things.

Cover, pressure cooker perfectionOne comparison that I’d really be interested in is slow cooker versus pressure cooker energy use, and taste of the same dish prepared in both. Most data that I found suggested that the slow cooker wins on convenience, and the pressure cooker on energy saving. A taste comparison would certainly be interesting.  I’m almost certain that a pressure cooker can’t replace a good old-fashioned slow braise in the over.

I’ve recently started playing with a pressure cooker–it’s a lot different than what my mother used. The recipes in Pressure Cooker Perfection have been a good starting point. I suspect that I’ll be using a pressure cooker more  in the future, as well as the slow-cooker. Climate, air conditioning, and heating, are all things that will enter into my decisions. I’m also trying out an portable induction unit which is supposed to be ore energy efficient.

So many options for energy efficiency–but what about taste?  I doubt that any other method is going to come out tasting like an oven braise, no matter how many umami-enhancing ingredients you add.

A son goût!

Dutch oven with lamb and garbanzos

very simple, very tasty

Fig and fennel caponata!

figs on tree

ripe and unripe figs on tree

My kitchen smells SO good right now–fennel, oranges, garlic…tartness of balsamic vinegar….

I’ve finished the most recent BIG indexing project, and I’m supposed to be deep in course preparation for my medical terminology courses that start a bit after mid-August.

I’m playing hooky from that for a bit.  I found a recipe for fig and fennel caponata that wouldn’t wait.  You’ll find the recipe at jjbegonia.com.

Caponata of any sort is one of my favorite summer things, no matter how served, and this was a combination I just had to try. Though mostly we think of caponata as a dish made with eggplant, tomatoes, etc., it is really a cooked vegetable salad–and as much as I love fennel and figs, I just had to try this one NOW.

I took a few liberties with the recipe, but I think that I kept to the spirit–the flavor was certainly good.  The only real modification I made was to substitute diced (drained) fire-roasted tomatoes for the crushed in purée since that’s what I had in the pantry, and after tasting, I added more figs. Whether my figs were less sweet, or my balsamic was more acidic, I’m not sure, but it seemed to need a bit more of the figgy-ness.  I held back most of the parsley since I’m not serving immediately.

Despite my liberties, it’s a fantastic recipe–obviously great on toasted bread just as a nibble (maybe with a glass of cava or prosecco), but I’m looking forward to it as a side for a grilled lamb (shoulder or leg) chop, though I’ll have some left to try on sandwiches as well, and maybe with pasta…and probably to share with neighbors and friends.

(Given that both the recipe from jjbegonia.com and mine were changes from the Barefoot Contessa, here is the link to that recipe for fig and fennel caponata as well. I’ll probably try this when fresh figs are not available, but I do like the freshness of this recipe.)

fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

Foeniculum vulgare

Indigo Rose Tomatoes

When you’re just getting thoroughly tired of winter–about late November or  very early January–the seed catalogs start to appear in the mail box.  You spend hours happily looking through them and anticipating planting seed.  There are all those gorgeous pictures and the descriptions.  For me this is especially a problem with tomatoes.  So, every year I end up wanting something new–in addition to those heirlooms that I always want (Black Krim, Cherokee Purple). Last year my new addition was a Japanese Black Trifle.  It’s now become one of the regulars, and is close to replacing the Black Krim because it tastes wonderful and produces more tomatoes.

This past winter the tomato that aroused my curiosity most was an Indigo Rose, described in Johnny’s Select Seeds as a cocktail sized tomato, dark purple because of the anthocyanins (anti-oxidants) which develop in areas of the skin exposed to direct sunlight. To further titillate, it was described as ” good flavor with ‘plummy’ overtones. Developed by Jim Myers at Oregon State University using traditional plant breeding techniques. Moderately vigorous. Compact indeterminate. Organically grown.”  Now, who could possibly resist that in the midst of grey skies and cold rain?  Yes, I ordered some seeds.

Sprays of unripe Indigo Rose Tomatoes on the vine

unripe Indigo Rose tomatoes

Now we are harvesting them from the garden and fields–the acid test, so to speak.  I’ll concede that they are moderately vigorous, compact indeterminate, and very striking when you see them in the garden even when unripe the purple anthocyanin pigment is really obvious.

As they ripen to red (thus, the “Rose”, I guess) they really are lovely–impressive to be perfectly honest about it.

The very first ones that I tasted left me somewhat ambivalent about the taste–maybe I  tried them before that were appropriately ripe, or maybe I just like a different style of tomatoes–anyhow, there were different opinions.

Ripe Indigo Rose tomatoes

ripe Indigo Rose on the vine

Now that I’ve tasted some that I’m sure are really ripe, and tried them in several different ways, other than just eaten out of hand, I’m more interested in exploring different things to do with them.

I have to say that they are not going to make it on to my bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich–not nearly tart enough to stand up to the really good dry cured kind of bacon that I like to put on my BLTs.  (I would put a Black Krim, or a Japanese Black Trifele, or a Brandy Boy on my BLT, though.) But–there are lots of tomatoes that I really like for different uses that don’t make it onto the BLT either–so no strike against the Indigo Rose for that reason.

My impression eating them out of hand is that they are a very low acid tomato.  Usually I prefer higher acid tomatoes–a balance of tomato-tart and tomato-sweet.  So this is not going to be my choice of tomato for my sloppy, eat-over-the-sink-with-mayo tomato sandwich (which needs to be on white bread, too, by the way!) either.

But–one of my other summer favorites is insalata Caprese.  One of the fun things to do when making this salad is to have different kinds of tomatoes–lots of visual appeal–like Green or Red Zebras, some pink, some purple–whatever!  I tried these with the fresh mozzarella and extra-virgin olive oil, and just a tiny drizzle of a good balsamic vinegar.  The sweet-tartness of the balsamic really showed the sweet tomato flavor of the Indigo Rose tomatoes.  I did not (I know Indigo rose tomatoes in basket after pickingit’s heresy, but I did not) put basil on this salad–I used Syrian oregano, and it was a lovely salad.

For more taste and visual contrast I might combine these with an orange or yellow (also lower acid) tomato, but not with high acid tomatoes–I think that would just make the Indigo Rose ones taste bland–but that’s the next experiment!  A reason to go tomato shopping at the Wake Forest Farmers’ market tomorrow.

Another way that I’d like to try them is slowly oven-roasted to concentrate the flavors–I think that will really bring out the sweet, plummy flavor–again another experiment.  They are a good size to use in green salads, but I’d want a pretty mellow vinaigrette with them–maybe just extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Haricots verts with herb-infused oil

Taverna filet beans

haricots verts (Taverna)

Yes, it is French for green beans–and they are Phaseolus vulgaris, but they are special green beans–not like Kentucky Wonder, or some of the other rather common beans.  To find them in the seed catalogue you need to look for “filet” beans.  They are bush beans, but the pods are small and slender (when harvested appropriately). Not having a large garden, I don’t grow my entire supply of green beans–the usual pole beans or bush beans like Kentucky Wonder–I buy some from the farmers’ market and I even use frozen ones in the wintertime.

These little beans are something that does get space in my garden or in a container on my deck–with successive plantings throughout the summer so that I can dash out and pick a single-serving batch when I want them.

My favorite way to cook them is to steam them very briefly (about 5 minutes) until just tender, shock  them in ice water so that they stay brilliant green, and  toss them with some extra-virgin olive oil infused with fresh herbs, and served at room temperature.  A favorite of mine for those hot summer days when you’re being fussy about what you eat.

containers of herbs on deck and stairway

herbs

Since I do grow a lot of herbs on my deck with containers arranged on the stairway, and since I prefer not to let them bloom since that affects the flavor of the herb, I keep them cut back to prevent blooming–or grow varieties that do not bloom as readily as the common culinary herbs.  I find that I often need to give the marjoram and the oregano a “butch” cut.  This does not involve a neat trim–it’s taking the hedge shears with the long blades and lopping off the tips.  That leaves me with a handful of fresh herbs to share with my neighbors, or to use to make herb-infused oils to have on hand, and to use during the wintertime.

It’s simple to make herb-infused oils.  For immediate use, you can simply blanch the herbs, then “shock” in ice water, squeeze dry, and purée with enough oil to make a slurry, then add more oil.  Let stand, refrigerated, for 24 hours and strain through coffee filter.  These can keep for about a week, refrigerated.

For longer storage, I prefer to heat the herbs in oil to about 185 to 195° F and then strain.  At that temperature, you should be safe from any bacterial growth.  The last batch of oil that I prepared, I washed, blanched and dried the herbs; then chopped them and popped them into my very small slow cooker overnight, and then strained them.  This oil is probably not as bright green as it would be had I not heated it for that long, but the aroma is really great.

My favorites with the haricots verts is either sweet marjoram, or Syrian oregano (also sometimes known as zaatar).  Both of these herbs seem to intensify the sweetness and the “bean-ness” of the haricots.

Most herbs lend themselves well to making flavored oils:  sage, oregano, thyme–whatever is your favorite–try different ones with the beans, and vary it according to the flavors of other dishes served at the same time.

A son goût!  

Caponata!

The first time I tasted “caponata” it was mostly eggplant, and it was absolutely buried in tomato sauce.  I liked the concept, but it had kind of languished until I was looking around the kitchen at the tomatoes and eggplants that I had there.  This has been such hot, humid, torrid weather that I’m turning into a very picky eater…must be flavorful, room temperature or cold.  Needless to say I’ve eaten a lot of melons and fruits…and raw tomatoes in caprese salad, but I really needed to do something with the tomatoes and eggplants.

I decided to go looking for a recipe for caponata that looked like something I want to eat with grilled or griddled king klip since that was on special in the market today.  I started by going to EatYourBooks.com to search for caponata recipes among the books that I own (that I’ve put on my bookshelf there).  I found that I had 6 recipes for caponata.  I don’t know if it’s the weather, or what, but none looked like something I wanted to tackle this afternoon.  So I went searching online in the blogs that I like to check on.

On All Things Sicilian and more, I found a recipe that “felt” like something to do this afternoon, and it seemed loose enough that I could do it with what I had–oriental-type eggplants and little grape tomatoes.  It involves several steps, but it’s seemed approachable. A slight variation put a little garlic and some red pepper flakes into the mix as the olives that I had were marinated in those things.   Admittedly I did take a few liberties with the recipe but I think it worked well.  I did not improvise with the agro dolce–I kept those proportions.

My only real variation (other than the tomatoes) was that I treated the eggplant as described in my post on how to cook eggplant (as suggested by Cook’s Illustrated: salted very lightly, microwaved it, pressed it) and I was able to sauté all the eggplant in about a tablespoon of olive oil.

Here is the recipe from All Things Sicilian blog–the best I’ve ever tasted.  (You should go to this blog and read for more information about caponata.)

Ingredients

  • extra virgin olive oil, 1½ cups (more or less – depending how much the vegetables will absorb)
  • eggplants, 1-2  large, dark skinned variety,
  • peppers, 3, preferably 1 green, 1 red, 1 yellow (variation of colour is mainly for appearance, but the red and yellow ones taste sweeter)
  • onion, 1, large, sliced thinly
  • red tomatoes, 2 medium size, peeled and chopped, or 2 tablespoons of tomato paste and a little water
  • capers, ½ cup, salted or in brine
  • green olives, ¾ cup, stoned, chopped
  • celery, 2-3 tender stalks and the pale green leaves (both from the centre of the celery)
  • white, wine vinegar, ½ cup
  • sugar, 2 tablespoons
  • salt and freshly ground pepper 

Preparation

For caponata vegetables

  1. Cut the eggplant into cubes (approx 30mm) – do not peel. Place the cubes into abundant water with about 1 tablespoon of salt. Leave for about 30 minutes – this will keep the flesh white and the eggplant is said to absorb less oil if soaked previously.
  2. Prepare the capers – if they are the salted variety, ensure they have been rinsed thoroughly and then soaked for about 30 minutes before use, and then rinsed again.
  3. Cut the peppers into slices (approx 20mm) or into rectangular shapes.
  4. Slice the onion.
  5. Slice the celery sticks and the green leaves finely.
  6. Peel, and coarsely chop the tomatoes (or use tomato paste).
  7. Drain the eggplants and squeeze them to remove as much water as possible – I use a clean tea towel.
  8. Heat a large frypan over medium heat with ¾ cup of the extra virgin olive oil.
  9. Add eggplant cubes and sauté until soft and golden (about 10-12 minutes). Place the drained eggplants into a large bowl and set aside (all of the vegetables will be added to this same bowl). If you want to, drain the oil from the eggplants back into the same frypan and re-use this oil to fry the next ingredients – the peppers.
  10. Add new oil (to the left-over eggplant oil) plus a little salt and sauté the peppers,until wilted and beginning to turn brown (about 10-12 minutes). Remove the peppers from the pan and drain the oil from the peppers back into the same frypan. Place the peppers in the bowl with the eggplants.
  11. Add a little more oil to the pan and sauté the celery gently for 5-7 minutes, so that it retains some of its crispness (in more traditional recipes, the celery is always boiled until soft before being sautéed). Sprinkle the celery with a little salt while it is cooking.
  12. Remove the celery from the pan and add it to the eggplants and peppers.
  13. Sauté the onion having added a little more oil to the frypan. Add a little salt and cook until translucent.
  14. Empty the contents of the frypan into the bowl with the other cooked vegetables.

For the agro dolce sauce

  1. Add the sugar to the frypan (already coated with the caramelised flavours from the vegetables).
  2. Heat it very gently until it begins to melt and bubble. Add the vinegar and evaporate.
  3. Incorporate the cooked vegetables into the frypan with the agro dolce sauce.
  4. Add ground pepper, check for salt and add more if necessary. Gently toss all of the ingredients over low heat for 2-3 minutes to blend the flavours.
  5. Remove the caponata from the pan and cool before placing it into one or more containers.

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It should hold well in the refrigerator–and I know it will be even better tomorrow when the flavors have melded  more.  I’m looking forward to this with some griddled king klip tomorrow.