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Ratatouille

This is not the correct ratio of ingredients for ratatouille but I was in such a rush to make the dish that I did not take any photos beforehand and this is all I had on hand this morning.

I had no particular intention of writing about ratatouille but I returned from the farmers market last Saturday around 12:30 (sleepy child on the bike) with a single-minded focus on ratatouille. I postponed the nap routine long enough to get the peppers and onions sauteing in one pan and the eggplant in another. I chopped the zucchini and left my husband with instructions to finish the eggplant and start the squash while I did the nap routine. Ellis went to sleep easily and I had that ratatouille done in another 20 minutes or so!

My husband and I sat down with a glass of red wine and our ratatouille at 1:15 on the sunny porch. I probably hadn’t eaten this dish since last October and was just overcome by the perfection of it, as I am every year.  For about two months every summer/fall all the ingredients for this classic french vegetable dish are available and even abundant. And the combination of flavors and textures is just unbeatable.

I won’t even attempt any claim of authentic preparation since I think it’s one of those dishes that has as many versions as cooks making it, but I am a believer in my technique and will encourage you to give it a try. It may seem like a lot of steps but it really comes together quickly and just entails a bit of chopping, none of which has to be terribly precise for this dish. And it’s even better the next day and is always best at room temperature. I, however, did not take the time to wait for that on Saturday . . . .

The next morning, having no bread in the house, I decided to make Ratatouille Breakfast Burritos. I scrambled a few eggs, chopped a bunch of parsley and grated a bit of cheese (feta would have been good too I think) and rolled the whole thing up in a whole-wheat tortilla. They were unbelievably good!

Ratatouille

Quantities listed here are just guidelines so use what you have but you want to have more or less equal amounts of zucchini, eggplant, onion, and pepper, a bit less tomato and just a sprinkling of herbs and garlic at the end.

3 sweet red peppers (or 6-7 skinny Jimmy Nardello peppers–pictured above, now available in the Portland area farmers markets), cut into about 1 inch chunks

1 small-medium white or yellow onion or Walla Walla Sweet, cut into 1/2 dice

1 medium-large (or several small) eggplants, cut into  1/2 inch dice

2 medium zucchini or other summer squash such as patty pan or yellow crookneck, cut into slices or 1/2 inch dice

2 medium tomatoes, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

10 or so leaves of basil or  tablespoon of fresh oregano (or a combination), finely chopped

salt

olive oil

Heat 1 tablespoon or so of olive oil (don’t skimp on the oil in this dish!) each in two large saute pans over high heat. Add the onions and peppers to one of the pans. Sprinkle generously with salt. Add the eggplant to the other and do the same. Stir well to coat veggies with a little oil. Continue cooking over fairly high heat, stirring occasionally. You want to soften the vegetables and browning them a little is fine. Turn down to med-high and continue cooking until they’re soft. Turn off the peppers and onions but leave in the pan. Remove eggplant and set aside on a plate, add another tablespoon of olive oil to that pan and add zucchini, salt well and cook, stirring frequently until they’re soft. Add eggplant, zucchini and diced tomato to the onions and peppers. Over high heat bring it to a boil–the tomatoes will give off a bit of liquid–reduce to medium-high and cook for about 5-7 minutes until much of the liquid from the tomatoes has been cooked off. Add the garlic and herbs, cook for about 2 more minutes. Turn off heat, adjust for salt, drizzle generously with good extra virgin olive oil and voila!

Best warm or at room temperature but I don’t blame you if can’t resist digging right in. Wonderful with good, crusty bread, over pasta, with eggs, a green salad, etc.

P.S. I’ve just planned and posted my October and November class schedule including some soup classes, an everyday baking class, a fall preserving one focused on tomato and onion jams, etc.

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Sugar

I grew up in a family where dessert was mandated (by my father) every night. I also grew up in Germany so fresh or cooked fruit with whipped cream or lightly sweetened quark was considered–and is–a wonderful dessert. We also had puddings, tarts, pies, and all sorts of wonderful German baked goods my American mother perfected to my German father’s delight. So there was always a little something sweet after dinner. We all loved it. I started making desserts at an early age and went through a long period of making Joy of Cooking layered cakes with things like orange cream filling and Devil’s Food Cake Cockaigne (what  does that word mean and where does it come from?).

I still love dessert  in all its wonderful forms but my palate has evolved a bit and I like things less sweet than I used to. I still love the occasional layer cake but am more drawn to fruit desserts, tarts, cookies, and quick breads these days. And I have to admit that I don’t feel so good after eating a lot of sugar. So I tend to reduce the amount of sugar in most recipes and make my jams with a quarter of the sugar I used to and think the result is often more flavorful. And besides the often-improved-flavor-factor I also know that refined sugars aren’t so good for us so, once again, moderation is here to save us!

I love David Lebovitz’s blog and implicitly trust every one of his recipes. However, I have become a bit of a pathological recipe tinkerer.  In part it’s because in order to properly use, e.g. adapt other published recipes you need to make them you’re own before you post them and because I’m just curious and I am Miss Cook With What You Have after all, so if I don’t have sour cream I’ll use yogurt or if I don’t have a scallions I’ll use a chunk of regular onion, etc. In any case one of David Lebovitz’s recent posts was about a zucchini cake. I tried hard not to tinker much so I only made two changes. I reduced the amount of sugar by a generous 1/4 cup and squeezed the grated zucchini out in a tea towel, removing some of the moisture and enabling me to pack more zucchini (but still adhere to his weight prescription) into this amazing cake. So instead of rewriting his recipe in my own words I’ll leave you with the link. Do be sure to use lemon zest, as he suggests in the body of the post but not in the recipe itself. And if you care to decrease the sugar, I do recommend it. Oh and I use my Zyliss cheese grater to grind nuts (almonds in this case) since it results in a much fluffier texture. I think food processor’s tend to turn them a bit oily and chunkier but either way will be fine I’m sure.

This cake instantly made my top-five dessert list. I think it’s that good. And since my summer squash plants are still producing we may have less ratatouille this year and more zucchini cake. Oh and I made the glaze exactly like he describes though mine soaked into the cake more and didn’t leave much of a visible coating. It did not seem to compromise the flavor and I definitely wouldn’t skip the glaze. So, go put those zucchini to use!

Ellis wishing I would actually let him eat that big of a slice of cake

Pizza (class)

It’s fun, it’s a treat, it can hold most anything, and it’s really good and easy to make at home. Whether you buy pre-made pizza dough or make it yourself (we’ll be doing the latter in class next week) it really is an easy meal. I forget about it for periods  and then when something inspires me to make one I always wonder why I don’t do it more often. The dough is easy to freeze so mix up a double batch and save  half.

I’m teaching a Pizza Class next Thursday, August 26 from 5-7:30pm  We’re going to be making fresh pizzas with homemade dough with Jim Lahey’s (of No Knead Bread fame) wonderful pizza dough recipe. Three kinds will be on the menu: Stewed Red Peppers and Sausage; Classic Margarita with tomatoes, basil and mozzarella, and Potato.

I’ve had many requests for this class and already have requests for repeating it though this class isn’t even full yet. So, if you’ve been meaning to learn or refresh your skills on pizza making, sign up. Three spots left.

Happy cooking and eating!

Making the Best of a Bad Purchase

I love Apricots and so does my 3-year-old son. Last summer he climbed up a ladder into an apricot tree and devoured 3 huge ones, never having tried one before. So in a fit of fear of missing the short apricot season entirely I purchased a case from a source I knew better than to trust in having good fruit. And I should have known better when, having asked the somewhat dumbfounded clerk if I could taste one before I purchased the case, I handed the other half to my son who took one bite and handed it back to me.

So I made two LARGE batches of jam, cursing my poor decision along the way. I typically add a bit of orange zest and juice to my apricot jam, something my grandmother always did (though she added pineapple as well) and with a bunch of lemon juice too, the jams are actually quite good. But now I understand why many people are uninspired by apricots.  There must be a lot of bad apricots out there. Apricots that are mealy and flavorless or hard and flavorless not sweet and juicy and musky and heavenly like they can and should be.

One of my earliest childhood memories is of driving through the Columbia River Gorge to Hood River to pick apricots and climbing ladders in the hot wind of the Gorge in mid-summer and eating and eating them up in the trees. And then driving home dusty and sticky, the car filled with the sweet warm scent of apricots.  They are really an easy fruit to work with too–a cinch to wash, no need to peel, and they’re free-stone.

So a few lessons from this experience. 1) I’ve been lucky to have grown up with good apricots. 2) Good products need much less doctoring and are delicious as is so if you’re after fresh eating, maybe better to skip them if they’re not very good. 3) The practice of breeding fruit (or veggies)  for portability and visual appeal rather than flavor is a shame. 4) I’ll buy my apricots from the farmers’ markets or u-pick in the future, even though I  know that this jam will be welcome in the dead of winter.

So today I decided to turn the final bowl of sorry fruit into a cobbler. This is hands-down my favorite cobbler recipe. It was originally written for Italian Prunes (or plums as most now call them) but is equally good with apricots and peaches or a combination or with the addition of a few handfuls of blackberries.

It calls for a bit of cardamom and crunchy turbinado sugar on the tops of the biscuits and is a perfect combination of juicy fruit and light, creamy biscuits. And the poor apricots, doctored up with lemon juice and zest, and said cardamom cooked up into a very good cobbler.

Apricot, Peach, or Plum Cobbler

–Adapted from Claudia Fleming

For the Biscuits:

1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour (or half all-purpose and half whole wheat pastry flour)

3 tablespoons sugar

3 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons butter, chilled, cut into 1/2 inch pieces

2/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream

1 tablespoon turbinado sugar

For the Filling:

2 1/2 lbs of fruit (apricots, peaches, plums or a combination) to yield 6-7 cups

1/4 teaspoon cardamom

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 cup sugar

Preheat oven to 375.

To make the biscuits, mix all dry ingredients in a large bowl. Cut the butter into the mixture with a pastry cutter until the butter is the size of large peas. Stir the cream in with a fork and gather the dough into a ball. Turn it out onto a floured work surface and shape the dough into 8, about 2-inch balls. Place on a baking sheet and flatten slightly. Refrigerate for  20 minutes or up to 2 hours. If you’re in a hurry you can skip this step. I have had fine results as well.

Mix the fruit with the sugar and spices in a 2 quart gratin dish. I used cardamom and 3 teaspoons of lemon juice and the zest of half a lemon in my apricot version today and skipped the cinnamon. I also used a generous 1/4 cup of sugar. Taste the fruit before you bake the cobbler and adjust sugar to taste. Place the flattened balls of dough evenly on the fruit. Brush the remaining cream on the biscuits and sprinkle the turbinado sugar on top. Bake for 40-45 minutes until the fruit is bubbling and the top is lightly browned. Serve warm are at room temperature with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

And apricot cobbler for breakfast is a treat, even with second-rate fruit!

Too Much To Say & Two Recipes

I’ve been wanting to write a post about my recent trip to NYC for Slow Food, my upcoming pizza class; the wedding cake I made this summer; the annual Deumling Goat Roast (you have to scroll down a bit on this link for the photos); what’s in my freezer and why; how I source my products; why cooking is as much art as science,  . . . .And instead of any of those I’m going to write about what I made for dinner last night. I’ll eventually cover the above topics (though you might have to remind me) but I felt compelled to write about last night’s dish and the process of making it because it seems that the last-minute, creative, sometimes-under-duress kind of cooking that I often talk about is of interest.

I had an exhilarating but long weekend of teaching and often the Monday after I have little inspiration left. I am a bit under the weather too and didn’t know what to make. It had to be quick and couscous is by far the fastest starch in my pantry. I had one big, beautiful tomato, some summer squash (which I quickly diced and sautéed) and feta so I figured all together that would be a good start.

Then I remembered some hard-boiled eggs in the fridge from a few days ago and the basil that needed picking in the backyard. I made a very lemony dressing with garlic, a bit of hot chili pepper, black pepper and good olive oil and within about 15 minutes total I had a lovely, fresh, light meal in a bowl!

And I have to admit I was being casual with my measurements and did not stick to the 1 cup of couscous to one cup of liquid rule and used more water. At first I feared the couscous would be too gummy once I started fluffing it with a fork, however, after a few minutes left uncovered and fluffed some more it was just fine. The dressing was perfect and the occasional salty, tangy bites of feta and rich bites of egg made for a nice, summery combo. At the end I decided it needed a bit more heft and sliced up a frozen Italian pork sausage, quickly fried it and added that to. My husband was concerned this ad-hoc dish might suffer from what we somewhat disdainfully refer to as ingredient pile-up, but luckily it did not and each ingredient added something relevant. So, whether or not you make this as described or use it as inspiration to combine whatever you have on hand, is immaterial. The fun part, for me at least, is coming up with something delicious even when I don’t feel like cooking and haven’t planned a thing. And if any of you know of a source for whole wheat couscous please let me know. I’ve heard such a thing exists but have not tracked it down!

And since you have to read this whole post to get a sense of this “recipe” I’m going to give you another one that I’ve been making and teaching a lot of late. It’s another perfect and fairly quick summer supper from the ever clever Mark Bittman. I’ve changed his recipe for Tomato Paella just a bit by omitting the oven step and just do the whole thing on the stove top. Works perfectly and avoids heating up the kitchen on a summer night (not that we’ve had much heat to begin with!) And I imagine you could add a handful of shrimp and/or clams during the last few minutes of cooking, cover the pan, and steam those, for a slightly more authentic paella.

Happy Cooking and Eating!