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Ratatouille

  • September 14, 2008

Anyone who’s ever eaten or made ratatouille has an opinion on what the dish should taste like and how it should be prepared. Let me just say there is no definitive version. There’s only the version you like. The version I like? It spoke to me at a Provencal restaurant along the Mediterranean Sea nearly 25 years ago. “Use more olive oil,” it said. “Use more red peppers,” it said. So I listened. And I made it. But it wasn’t the same. So I made it again. And again. And again. After years of trial and error, I finally figured out why I so loved that particular ratatouille in a little French village near the Italian border on that particular night. Yes, I liked the heavy hand the chef had taken with the olive oil, and yes I liked the abundance of red peppers. But it was technique as much as ingredients that made the dish special. The key to this particular recipe is layering. Don’t just throw all the vegetables into the pot and expect it to transport you to St. Tropez. Read the instructions and you’ll see what I mean.
This makes a great side dish, particularly with sausages or pork as a main course. But it’s wonderful as a main course too, in individual casseroles topped with grated parmesan cheese and placed under the broiler for a few minutes. It’s the next best thing to being in Les Baux.

Ratatouille

Serves six as a side dish or four as a main course.

I prefer more red peppers (a lot more) and zucchini and fewer eggplants than most ratatouille recipes, but you can substitute anything you like.

1 medium size yellow onion, chopped into small pieces
3 medium size zucchini, cut into chunks
1 medium size eggplant, partly peeled (I make “stripes” down the eggplant with a vegetable peeler) and cut into chunks
6 large red peppers, cut into chunks
8 cloves of garlic, minced
6 fresh plum tomatoes, or 1 28-ounce can tomatoes
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp. freshly ground sea or kosher salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 tsp. herbs de provence

Saute the onions in part of the olive oil for about 10 minutes, or until translucent and golden. Remove the sauteed onions to a plate or bowl.
Add more of the olive oil and the zucchini. Saute for five minutes or just until the pieces begin to soften. Remove and place on a separate plate.
Add the peppers and saute for five minutes. Then add the onions and zucchini back into the pot with the peppers. Add the garlic and let it saute a few minutes.
Add the remaining olive oil and eggplant pieces. Saute all the vegetables together another five minutes at medium heat. (The eggplant should be added last since it will disintegrate into unrecognizable pieces if given the same cooking time as the other vegetables.)
If using fresh tomatoes, peel the skin ahead of time by placing in a pot of boiling water for a few minutes, then cut in half, clean out the seeds and dice the flesh. Add the tomatoes to the pot. If using canned tomatoes, do not use the liquid in the can at first. You can add it later if the mixture looks too dry.
Add the salt, pepper and herbs de provence and simmer at medium heat for 20 minutes with the lid off, to help evaporate some of the liquid.

Gatto’ di Patate

  • September 6, 2008

So many of my friends are good cooks, including Lilli, who originally hails from Salerno, about 30 miles south of Naples. She made the potato cake in the photo and gave it to me shortly before dinner tonight.
Boy, was I lucky to be in the right place at the right time. It’s the ultimate comfort food all’Italiana. Think of mashed potatoes all dressed up and ready to show off. It’s also a terrific party food too, to make ahead and bake later.
There are as many variations of this recipe as there are varieties of pizza. Some recipes call for adding bits of salami, some for ham, and some for both — but you can omit the meat entirely if you like. You can also add provolone cheese in addition to the mozzarella, or pecorino instead of parmigiana. Like so many Italian cooks I know, Lilli keeps a lot recipes in her head, including this one. She did, however, spell out the basic ingredients, and I have approximated proportions in the recipe that follows.
The gatto’ (accent on the second syllable) is a traditional Neapolitan recipe that takes its name from the French “gateau” or cake. If you make the mistake of accenting the first syllable, you’ve got yourself a potato cat, not a potato cake.

serves 6
2 lb. potatoes
1 egg
4 T. butter, plus more to grease the dish
1/2 cup parmigiano reggiano cheese, grated
3/4 cup mozzarella cheese, diced
1 cup cooked ham or salami, diced
2 T. Italian parsley, chopped
pinch of nutmeg

1/2 cup milk, or more as needed to keep the mixture from getting too hard
salt and pepper

bread crumbs
2 T. butter

Boil potatoes until tender and drain. Place the 4 T. butter into a bowl. Peel the potatoes and pass through a “ricer” or mash by hand directly into the bowl over the butter, so that the hot potatoes melt the butter. Cool for five minutes, then add the rest of the ingredients except the bread crumbs and the 2 T. butter. Mix it all together until blended. Grease the bottom of a pie plate or other oven-proof dish with butter and smooth the mixture into the container. Sprinkle bread crumbs on top and gently press down with a fork. Dab with bits of butter. Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for about 45 minutes.

Zucchini “Carpaccio”

  • September 3, 2008

With this recipe, I didn’t start out on the right foot, or shall I say, finger. I bought a mandoline two months ago and the box was still unopened. I’ll bet you already know where this is going.
The zucchini plants in the garden were still producing glossy green spheres, so I thought I’d inaugurate the contraption with them. It was time to open the box and get started. Unfortunately, my thumb and a slice of flesh got in the way.
Six Band-Aids, two pints of blood (ok, so I exaggerate a little) and a half hour later, I tried again — this time using the protective thingamajig that comes with the mandoline.
Although it’s the beginning of September and the weather should be starting to cool off, we had a nearly 90 degree day here in New Jersey — hot enough so that a cold salad seemed like just the ticket to accompany the grilled steak I was planning for dinner.
I pulled out the mandoline –not essential for this salad, but it does slice the zucchini paper-thin. In the photo, you can see how nearly-transparent the slices are. It’s hard, but not impossible, to get them as thin if you are slicing by hand. Just make sure you’re slicing by hand, not slicing a hand, like I did.
I used one large round zucchini, but you can make this recipe with the long ones as well. One large zucchini generously serves two people.
This isn’t a true carpaccio like beef carpaccio, the thinly sliced raw delicacy, which by the way, was named after Vittore Carpaccio, a Renaissance artist who used lots of brilliant red in his paintings. But when your mandoline demands a pound of flesh from you, I think you can take liberties with the name. Besides, I used my share of brilliant red too. That is, if you’re counting hemoglobin.

Zucchini Carpaccio

1 large zucchini, thinly sliced
1/4 cup goat cheese, crumbled
3 T. extra virgin olive oil
1 T. white balsamic vinegar (or lemon juice)
2 T. toasted pine nuts (or walnuts)
salt, pepper
minced chives

Slice zucchini and assemble on plate. Grind salt and pepper on zucchini slices. Sprinkle with chives, crumbled goat cheese and pine nuts. Whisk olive oil and vinegar together and drizzle on top.