Monday, August 23, 2010

Layered Ratatouille

My working recipe for ratatouille has always been the variant popularized by Julia Child, in which the vegetables are separately browned before being layered, lasagna style, into a casserole and briefly braised. A nice side effect of this method is that you a bit of a fond on the bottom of the pan, which you hoover up as you make the tomato sauce. It also makes a nicely slice-able end product.

I've made this dish often enough that I don't remember the exact recipe anymore, and was able to make it for Pacer (GA-ME 2006) and his sister Cari on a break from the Appalachian Trail in Washington, D.C. Wow, that was more than 4 years ago. Whoosh.

Anyway here we go.

2 medium sized eggplants, peeled, sliced into .5" rounds
3 good-size zucchini, ends removed, sliced into long strips.
4 or 6 nice yellow squash, sliced into rounds.
1 green bell pepper, seeded, halved
1 yellow bell pepper, seeded, halved
1 big yellow onion, peeled
8 roma tomatoes, stems cut out.
A handful basil
A handful parsley
6-12 cloves garlic, minced
Tbsp paprika
1 heaping tsp red pepper flakes
Some kosher salt
An awful lot of extra virgin olive oil
Medium sized casserole dish, 2.5 quarts, maybe a bit bigger.

Salt the eggplant rounds on both sides and lay out on a very thick layer of paper towels. Wait 30 minutes, then flip them, and wait another 30 minutes. They should be very limp, very meaty. Rinse any excess salt from the rounds and keep them handy. This is called purging the eggplant and it rids the berry of its nastier flavors. Try and pick boy eggplants and not girl eggplants. Boy eggplants have a round belly button, girls have an oval belly button. The boys have fewer seeds and are thus less bitter.

Get the sauce fixings ready while the hopefully boy eggplant is bring purged. I like to get the sauce components ready in the cuisinart because this is a time sucking recipe, and I don't want to give this recipe more time than it already demands. In your food processor, pulse the onion until very coarsely chopped, then add the bell peppers (seeded, please), pulse until they are coarsely chopped. Reserve in a separate bowl. Put the tomatoes in the food processor, whir until everything is smoothed out, reserve. Finally, whir the basil and the parsley until chopped, reserve.

In your biggest skillet, heat a couple of tablespoons of the extra virgin until shimmering on medium-high heat. Brown the eggplant, turning once. You might need to add more oil between batches, especially with the eggplant, because that stuff sucks up oil like nobody's business. If stuff starts turning black in the bottom of the pan drop the heat to medium. Reserve all those fine browned vegetables, eggplant in one bowl, squishes in another.

Now that you are done with the eggplant and squishes, add some more oil to the pan and throw in the onions and green peppers. Just a bit of salt to help them sweat, but be careful with the salt, as there's enough in the eggplant already. Cook on medium heat until everything is softened. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes, cook about 30 seconds. Add the tomato mixture, stir to loosen all brown bits from the bottom of the pan. If it doesn't look red enough add paprika. Cook this mixture down on medium heat until it is almost dry, like thick oatmeal. Add the chopped basil and parsley, then remove from the heat.

Heat the oven to 300.

In the casserole, put down a third of the tomato mixture, then a third of the eggplant, a third of the squishes. Repeat until all ingredients are used up.

Put in the oven for anywhere between 30 minutes to 1 hour. Watch the casserole carefully to make sure it doesn't scorch on the sides or on the top. Pull from the oven, allow to cool to just warm, then slice into rectangles and serve.

This dish gets much, much better when it is stored for a few days in the fridge. It is also surprisingly good cold, and works well as a pasta topping or savory crepe filling. It's also low-carb, and makes a good subsitiute for potatoes when you are serving roast beast of some form.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Creamy Tomatoes

Sometime in early September I'm walking around Mt. Rainier in Washington State, on a thing called the Wonderland Trail. It's generally considered by the hiking public to be the most gorgeous long trail in the United States. Mile-for-mile, it also has the second-most cumulative altitude gain of any long trail in the United States, right behind Vermont's Long Trail. Walking around the big volcano and its lahores and moraines you clamber down- and consequently climbs out of- many many deep gorges. What this means in terms of a cooking and hiking blog is that a diet is coming. Time to clean out the fridge and the pantry of ingredients sure to add knee-destroying body weight. I'm looking at you, pasta and cream.

Even if you aren't cleaning out the pantry, this is some pretty good pasta. It's also surprisingly quick and can be whipped up on a weeknight after work.

3 tbsp butter
1 oz prosciutto (I used the lean parts of some slab bacon and it worked fine.)
1 small onion, minced
1 bay leaf
.5 tsp red pepper flakes
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp tomato paste (Incredibly I didn't have any tomato paste, but I used some tomato puree I'd reduced until dark)
2 oz sun dried tomatoes (I didn't have these, but normally I use the sun-dried tomatoes from Sam's, which are packed in olive oil).
.25 cup white wine
14 oz canned diced tomatoes, whirred in the food processor until smooth (Hunt's diced tomatoes are very good, Muir Glen is supposed to be good also)
1 pound penne
.5 cup heavy cream
.25 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped (I used the squeeze tube of basil, about 2 tbsp)
Fresh grated Parmesan (I used sheep milk Pecorino as we entertain a lot of lactose-intolerant folk)

Put a big pot of salted water on to boil for the pasta.

Melt your butter in a big saucepan on medium heat. Add the bacon, cook until it's gotten some color. Make sure the butter doesn't turn brown. If it does, turn down the heat. Add the onion, bay leaf, pepper flakes, pinch of salt, cook until onion is soft and a bit brown. Add garlic, cook until aromatic. Crank the heat up to medium-high, add the tomato paste and sun dried tomatoes. Cook, stirring, until darkened. Frying tomato paste like this is something you see a lot of in Creole cooking, it adds a certain long-cooked tomato flavor without the actual long cooking. Add the wine and cook until liquid is evaporated, scraping the bottom for any stubborn paste bits. Add the whirred tomatoes, but reserve, eh, .25 cup for later. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is quite thick. You know it's thick enough when you pull the spoon across the pan and you can see the pan.

While it's simmering cook the pasta until al dente. Drain and refresh in the colander with some cold water so it doesn't overcook.

Back to the sauce. It's thick now, right? Take out the bay leaf. Add the cream, the .25 cup reserved whirred tomatoes, a splash of white wine, and heat until the cream is warmed through. Try to not let it come to a boil. Add the basil, stir to combine, then add the pasta and toss to coat. Serve with the fresh grated cheese.