It's no secret that our Maryland farmers are cranking out the year's best produce right now. Every time Al visits the market and sees table after table of gorgeous fresh vegetables, he starts ransacking his brain for ideas on how to cook and serve it. Chef Jerry Pellegrino has said that one place to look for inspiration is the Mediterranean, where fresh vegetables are the cornerstone of cooking.
Al loves making ratatouille. If you're unfamiliar with it, this is a summer vegetable stew that comes to us from Provence.
The secret to making a good ratatouille is to somehow cook the ingredients separately and then combine them at the end. Eggplant takes the longest; bell peppers (red, yellow and green) take a while; summer squash and zucchini can go together; you can start your onion by itself and then add in the minced garlic; and your soft tomatoes go in last.
You can do the cooking stove-top in skillets or in the oven on cookie sheets. The one thing you will certainly want to do is drizzle your chopped up veggies with a lot of high quality EVOO. When everything is cooked to the same tenderness, it's time to combine in an oven-proof bowl, stir in some tomato paste, and add your seasonings. Al would use Herbes de Provence, fresh parsley, cumin, and salt and pepper. You would bake this in a moderate oven for about an hour and then take it out and let it rest. Ideally, you would make this a day-ahead and let those flavors mingle. Serve it warm or cool, it doesn't matter. It's going to taste marvelous either way.
There are tons of ratatouille recipes out there, with many different approaches. This one, written by Elise Bauer on Simply Recipes comes very close to what Al considers the ideal technique. He's added one or two of his own touches.
1 lb of yellow onions, peeled and chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1 lb zucchini, chopped
1 lb eggplant, cut into 1/2" cubes
1 each, red, yellow, and green Bell peppers, de-seeded, chopped into 1/2" pieces
1 medium yellow squash, cut into 1/2" cubes
1 lb fresh ripe tomatoes, hot-water peeled, de-seeded, chopped
2 tbs tomato paste
Salt and pepper to taste
2 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
1 sprig rosemary
1 tsp ground cumin
3/4 cup vegetable broth
1. Pre-heat oven to 350°.
2. In a large oven-proof skillet, sauté onions in 2 tbs olive oil, over moderate heat, until they begin to soften. Add garlic, reduce heat to low.
3. In another skillet, sauté zucchini in 2 tbs olive oil over high heat. Cover the bottom of the skillet, and stir the zucchini until they are browned on all sides.
Remove the zucchini and add to the onions.
4. In the second skillet, sprinkle the eggplant generously with salt, and sauté in 1/4 cup olive oil. Stir frequently, and cook until golden brown, in batches if necessary.
When finished, add to the onions.
5. While the eggplant cooks, in a third skillet, sauté the squash and bell peppers in 2 tbs EVOO. Cook until tender, then add to the onions.
6. When you have cooked all the vegetables and added them to the onions in the large skillet, add tomato paste and stir it into the mixture. Season with salt and pepper then add they thyme, bay leaf, rosemary and cumin. Pour in the vegetable stock and bring the stew to a boil over high heat. Stir the vegetables well to avoid sticking.
7. Just as the skillet comes to a boil, remove it and place it in the 350°, uncovered and let it cook for 45 minutes.
8. Remove the skillet from the oven, and drain vegetables into a colander placed over a bowl to catch the liquid. Place the empty skillet back on the stove, add the
drained juices and reduce by half over high heat. Be sure to scrape up the browned bits.
9. When the juices have been reduced, kill the heat, pour the vegetables back into
the skillet, stir, and add the tomatoes. Cover the skillet and let the heat of the vegetables cook the tomatoes.
10. When ready to serve, remove the bay leaf, correct seasoning. (You should allow the ratatouille to sit overnight, if you can. It will taste better.)
Another great way to enjoy fresh vegetables is to dip them raw into a bowl of home-made hummus. Very few Maryland farmers grow chickpeas, the basis of humus, so you'll want to use store-bought canned garbanzo beans, as they are also known as. The secret trick is to boil those beans in water laced with baking soda which will break they beans down and make them perfectly mushy.
The other signature ingredient is tahini, a sesame seed paste that is easy to find at the grocery. Here is a very convincing recipe I found on the website Kate and Cookie.
1 15 ounce can of chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 medium garlic clove, peeled and chopped
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
1/2 cup tahini
2-4 tbs ice water, more if needed
1/2 tbs ground cumin
1 tbs EVOO
1. Cook the chickpeas in a pan of water with the baking soda added. Bring to a boil, then moderate the heat, allowing the chickpeas to cook for about 20-25 minutes,
until soft and mushy. Drain the chickpeas, and rinse thoroughly with cold water and set aside.
2. In a food processor, blend the lemon juice, garlic and salt until the garlic has been very finely minced.
3. Add the tahini to the processor and blend until the mixture is thick and creamy. Scrape the sides to get it all in.
4. While running the processor, drizzle in 2 tbs of ice water. Blend until it is very smooth, pale and creamy. Use more ice water if you need to.
5. Add the chickpeas and cumin, process and drizzle in the olive oil while it is running. Taste and add more lemon juice if necessary, then adjust the salt.
6. Transfer to a serving bowl and garnish as you will.