This blog entry is all about ze cooking and so I think it is only appropriate to mention that a wonderful novel that features lots of cooking (and recipes!) is coming out tomorrow. It’s called STARTING FROM SCRATCH and it is by Susan Gilbert-Collins. Nice name, eh? And not only does Susan G-C share my name, but I get to share space on her book cover because I blurbed this book! It’s the first book I’ve ever blurbed and I feel right proud. I loved the book, and I think you will too, so go buy it right now.
But back to me and the tragedy of summer in the South: It is so very hot right now in the the ATL that I find I cannot talk–let alone think–about anything other than the heat. It radiates. It squashes. It envelops. And every retail outlet / restaurant overcompensates by cranking the AC to such a degree that when you walk inside a building dressed in as little as possible–sticky from sweat–suddenly, you have goosebumps because the AC is turned to 65. You have to remember to pack a light cardigan when going out to dinner or else you will freeze! Ironies abound. Alanis Morisette should consider a follow up …
The one saving grace about all of this stifling heat is the produce that comes from it. Here’s what Husband Alan procured at ye olde Morningside Market last weekend:
Now if you are anything like me when you see this lovely assortment of summer vegetables you will immediately think of one thing and one thing only: ratatouille. That is, if you see said assortment on a weekend afternoon as opposed to a weekday. Ratatouille is definitely a weekend food. It’s not that it is complicated to prepare, it’s just that it involves multiple steps and lots of stirring. During the weekday I would look at that collection of veggies and probably just chop up a raw salad with a simple dressing–minus the eggplant. (Raw eggplant would be grody. Although baba ghanoush–not grody–would be a simple enough weekday meal. Chop the eggplant in half, scoop out the seeds, roast it until it’s tender then blend with olive oil, lemon, chopped garlic and maybe a little Greek yogurt. Serve with toasted pita.) Many a weekday night I would just zero in on the tomatoes and eat them with some fresh mozzarella and basil–plus oil and salt, of course. But on the weekend I have time to stand over the stove. Especially if I start my cooking off the right way, with wine and music:
That wine glass used to have more liquid in it. And in the background Roseanne Cash’s album BLACK CADILLAC was playing. God, it’s a beautiful album, full of mourning and loss over her Daddy’s death. Full of redemption, too. Johnny comes through in her music.
I use Alice Water’s recipe for ratatouille. Her cookbook The Art of Simple Food, btw, has never, ever failed me. I once had Chef Scott Peacock over for dinner and made the braised duck legs from Alice’s book and Chef Scott swooned over them, which was perhaps the most exciting moment of my life. But I digress:
First you chop the eggplant up into 1 inch bites, then put the bites in a colander in the sink and sprinkle kosher salt all over. Allow the salt to draw out the water from the eggplant for about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile prep your other veggies, preferably all on a huge wooden cutting board, with the aim of minimal clean-up. Chop two onions, a whole bunch of garlic (I use six cloves), a couple of sweet peppers, a zucchini, and a bunch of tomatoes. My tomatoes were small so I used five. (I really like tomatoes.) Then run outside–quick! quick! It’s hot out there!–and get about a half a cup of basil leaves from the garden.
A note on cutting the onions and garlic: I stick my onions whole in the freezer for about 20 minutes before cutting them. Frozen onions don’t make you cry as much. I use the back-of-a-big-knife method for getting the skin off garlic cloves. Just lay the garlic on the cutting board and with the back of the knife smash it open. Once you’ve got your garlic all peeled, sprinkle a little salt on it before you chop it all up. The salt adds friction which makes the chopping easier because the garlic bits don’t slide around on the cutting board.
Your eggplant now properly salted, remove the water that leaked out with a paper towel. Heat about 2 T. (generous tablespoons) olive oil in a Dutch oven and, once hot, throw in your eggplant. Cook, stirring frequently, until the eggplant flesh turns golden brown. This takes at least 10 minutes. Have patience. The more you let it brown the more sweet and caramelized the final product will be. When golden, remove the eggplant, add a bit more oil, and throw in those chopped onions.
Season with salt and pepper and some red pepper flakes. Let cook until soft and translucent. Throw in all of that garlic you chopped. Take a big sniff. Does anything smell better than hot oil, onions and garlic? You are drinking wine while you do all of this, yes? And listening to something appropriate on your i-Pod? Check your heat because you don’t want the garlic to burn. Maybe turn from medium heat to medium low. Now add in a bunch of basil leaves, maybe 10. Alice Waters says to tie them all together in a bundle with kitchen twine and then pull the bundle out at the end, but mine always got loose and I was too lazy to pick them out one by one and I thought the basil leaves added a nice little freshness to the ratatouille anyway.
You are stirring constantly this whole time, or having your husband take a turn if you can get him away from the Sunday New York Times. Let the peppers cook with the onions, garlic and basil for 5 or so minutes, then add the zucchini. Keep stirring for another 5 or so minutes then add the chopped tomatoes and the eggplant that you set aside so long ago. Add a little more salt, a little more pepper. Keep stirring. Let the whole thing cook for another 15 minutes. You want to make sure the eggplant is tender. The tomatoes will have completely disintegrated by this point, but that’s okay. Their purpose is to bind the others in their sweet/acidic goodness. When the eggplant is tender and Johnny Cash has let you know that “up front there ought to be a man in black” you are done. Season to taste. Enjoy the warm ratatouille with toasted bread. You might pour a little olive oil on top and sprinkle on some chopped basil leaves.
As I said, ratatouille would never be photographed for a food book–at least mine wouldn’t. It’s a homely dish–too many shades of brown– but boy is it pretty on the inside. The sweetness is what really gets you, from all of those vegetables caramelizing and juicing together.
Afterwards, eat the chocolate mousse you made earlier that day. Yes, yes, you did! You made chocolate mousse. It was pretty easy, too, just chopped chocolate (I used Scharffen Berger 64 percent cocoa), coffee, butter, whipped cream, egg yolks and whipped egg whites with sugar. I threw in a little vanilla too because I find it hard to resist vanilla. Dump the whole thing into a big bowl, refrigerate all day, and serve that night with more fresh whipped cream. Revel in the fact that though you cannot control how damn hot it is outside, you know damn well how to feed yourself.