A Tale of Two Ratatouilles

No, not the Disney rat. Ratatouille is a French peasant vegetable stew that originated in the Provence region in the 18th century. The name “ratatouille” comes from the verb t0uiller, which means to stir-up. The ingredients are a medley of summer vegetables; so basically, you simply stir-up a bunch of vegetables for this sophisticated-sounding dish. In fact, it’s very simple and hearty, a dish of the fields.

Happily, ratatouille freezes well, helping extend the summer season into winter when the garden is dormant. I have made double batches and froze most of it (we always have to eat some of it!), but if you double, be sure not to skimp on the garlic and onions.

The recipes calls for zucchini, but yellow summer squash work just as well and add another color. Red and green peppers are equally interchangeable; the only difference is that the red makes the dish a touch sweeter and adds a shot of color.

I have included two recipes that have worked well for me; the ingredients are the same, the cooking method is the difference. They taste nearly identical as well; the real difference is in texture and appearance. The roasted eggplant version is more colorful and the vegetables retain their shape more than in the recipe given to me by my neighbor. So try them both and pick your favorite!

Eleanor’s Ratatouille

This recipe was given to me by my former neighbor and gardener extraordinaire, Eleanor Bertrand.

2 med eggplants

3 zucchini (yellow summer squash works well, too)

2 med onions, chopped

2 green or red peppers, chopped

4 large tomatoes, peeled and chopped

1 Tbsp salt (for eggplant)

¼ cup oil

4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed

2 tsp salt

2 tsp dried basil

1 tsp dried thyme

½ tsp oregano

¼ tsp black pepper (or more to taste)

2 bay leaves

Peel eggplant and slice into ½” thick slices, cut slices into halves or quarters depending on size. Sprinkle slices with 1 Tablespoon salt and let stand. Slice zucchini into ½” slices, halve or quarter. Rinse and pat the eggplant dry. Heat ¼ cup oil in a Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot, add onion and pepper and cook until soft. Add zucchini and eggplant, stirring occasionally until lightly browned. Stir in the chopped tomatoes and add the garlic, salt, pepper and spices.

Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer until veggies are almost tender, 20 – 30 minutes. Remove cover and cook gently 10 to 20 minutes until most of the liquid evaporates. Serve hot or cold. Freezes well. Serves 6.

Roasted Eggplant Ratatouille

From Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life.

1 pound eggplant, sliced crosswise into 1-inch thick rounds

Olive oil

1 pound zucchini, trimmed, halved lengthwise and sliced into ½-inch thick half-moons

1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced

1 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped

4 large cloves of garlic, thinly sliced (I mince it)

5 Roma tomatoes, seeded and chopped (I use whatever kind I have on hand)

¾ tsp salt

3 sprigs fresh thyme (or ½ tsp dried thyme)

1 bay leaf

¼ cup chopped fresh basil (optional, no fresh basil in October)

Preheat over to 400 degrees. Arrange eggplant rounds in a single layer on a baking sheet. Pour 2 Tablespoons of olive oil in a small bowl and brush onto the eggplant, then flip the slices and brush the other side as well. Bake for 30 minutes (less if your slices are thinner), flipping the slices halfway through the baking time, until soft and slightly brown on both sides. Remove from oven and cool. Cut into rough 1-inch pieces. Set aside. (You can do this a day ahead and refrigerate it until you’re ready to use it).

Heat 2 Tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat in a Dutch oven or large, deep skillet. Add the zucchini and cook, stirring occasionally until golden and just tender, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove it from the pan, leave behind any excess oil, and set zucchini aside.

If there is no oil left in the pan, add about 1 Tablespoon. Reduce the heat to medium and add the onion, stirring occasionally until slightly softened, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the bell pepper and garlic, stirring occasionally, until just tender but not browned, about 6 minutes. Add the tomatoes, salt, thyme and bay leaf, stir to combine. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 5 minutes. Add the eggplant and zucchini, stir to incorporate, and cook until everything is tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary. Discard bay leaf and add basil, if using.

 Serve hot, warm or at room temperature. Serves 4.

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Roasted Eggplant Spread

The vegetables look beautiful as they're ready to go in the oven

The vegetables look beautiful as they're ready to go in the oven

What to do with eggplants? Folks think they’re pretty, but they don’t have any idea of how to prepare them other than frying. One of my favorite eggplant recipes is from Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa. I’ve made this dish many times and tweak it with whatever I’ve got on hand; it always turns out great. I made this the other day from 100 percent locally grown vegetables.

Roasted Eggplant Spread

1 medium eggplant (she says peeled, I never bother with that)

*1 medium summer squash, yellow or green (this is my addition)

2 red bell peppers (green or purple work fine too)

1 red onion (any onions are fine)

2 garlic cloves, minced or pressed

3 Tb olive oil

1 ½ tsp salt

½ tsp freshly ground pepper

1 Tb tomato paste (I’ve made it without it)

 *The summer squash is my own addition, helps use up extra zucchini.

 Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut the eggplant, summer squash, bell pepper and onion into rough 1-inch cubes. Toss them in a bowl with the garlic, oil, salt and pepper. Spread on a baking sheet and roast for 45 minutes until vegetables are lightly browned and soft. Toss once during cooking. Cool slightly.

Place vegetables in a food processor, add the tomato paste (if you’re using it) and pulse 3 or 4 times to blend. Add salt and pepper to taste. This spread is great with pita chips and all manner of crackers.

Hot Mama

A selection of my hot peppers

A selection of my hot peppers

Because of the hot peppers, of course. This basket of peppers came from 12 pepper plants in one of my raised beds. Even with this cool summer, I picked (well, not exactly a peck) but a couple pounds of peppers, which is plenty for me, plus enough to share with friends. I grew Holy Mole, those are the very large, dark green ones; Hungarian Yellow and Garden Salsa varieties.

To grow hot peppers at this elevation, I did a few special things, such as covering each plant with a milk jug that had the bottom cut out. The jug acts as a mini-greenhouse keeping the plant warm and keeping frost at bay. As the plants grew, I cut back the jugs. When the nights started dropping into the high 30s in August, I covered the plants nightly, not only to ward-off frost, but also to help trap warmth. True, a bit more work, but definitely worth it when I picked this basket of beauties.

Edward Cullen – beware!

Heirloom garlic from Prairie Couteau Farm

Heirloom garlic from Prairie Couteau Farm

Some of you may be wondering “who on Earth is Edward Cullen?” But those of you with teenaged daughters know exactly who I’m talking about — he’s a vampire from the Twilight saga. And vampires mean —- garlic!

I just received my order from my friend Kristianna over at Prairie Coteau Farm at Astoria. I’ve known her for several years, and garlic is one of her passions; she grows heirloom varieties of excellent quality. Last year I ordered Transylvanian (I couldn’t resist the name), a hard neck variety suitable for long storage. My intent was to plant some myself. Astoria is in northeastern South Dakota where the winters are long and cold; if it will grow there, it should grow here. However, I had a pocket gopher issue and didn’t get that resolved in time to plant. So we ate all the garlic, and it lasted into the spring. That variety is a champion for storage!

This fall I have resolved to get the garlic planted in early to mid October. I ordered Transylvanian again, and also some Persian Star. That name just evokes the Silk Road for me, so I had to try it. I’ve ordered enough to have some to plant and the rest to eat. And I can sleep well knowing we should be vampire-free all year long.

Salsa-making time

Pints of fresh salsa

Pints of fresh salsa

After writing about entering the ranks of the “Cannerati” a few weeks ago, I have been promoted from a simple jam-maker to a salsa-maker. When I started canning, my real aim was to be self-sufficient in pizza and pasta sauces and salsa. Yesterday I put up 15 1/2 pints of salsa, and no, that’s probably not enough for my family for an entire year. Since I use salsa in my chili as well as a condiment, we chow down a remarkable amount of the stuff.

All my ingredients, with the exception of the vinegar, salt and cumin came from right here in the Black Hills. Most of the hot peppers I used came from my own garden. I found ripe paste tomatoes at the Farmer’s Market (the red barn by Crow Peak Brewing) in Spearfish. Unlike the commercial salsa from the store, homemade salsa has terroir, the flavor of the land.

If you’re looking for recipes, check Ball’s Complete Book of Home Canning; there are several good ones in there. Since salsa is a high-acid food (all of the recipes I have call for vinegar) it can be processed in a hot-water bath rather than a pressure-canner.

Growing potatoes

A handful of freshly dug potatoes

A handful of freshly dug potatoes

This June I found two rotting (honestly) Yukon Gold potatoes in my cupboard; however, as I was about to toss them in the compost, I noticed they were sending out some sprouts. My raised beds were all full, so I cut them up and stuck them in the front yard, in soil that I had carted around the foundation where I thought the ground had eroded. This was not soil rich in organic material, the location was on the west side of my house so the plants only had afternoon sun; ideal it was not.

To say the least, my expectations were low. In  a few weeks, I was rewarded with very attractive potato plants, so I figured that even if I didn’t get anything to dig up, they were pretty. My curiosity got the better of me this weekend, so I dug them up; lo and behold, there were some spuds there! Not many, but not bad for two rotten potatoes. Of course, next year I have bigger plans now that I find I can grow potatoes here. Those purple heirloom ones are pretty cool….

A Nation of Farmers

A Nation of Farmers

A Nation of Farmers

I just finished reading A Nation of Farmers by Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton, which I picked up at the Custer County Library. In a nutshell, it’s a treatise on overhauling our industrialized, corporate food system in favor of, well, a nation of farmers. Astyk and Newton raise the call for 100 million new farmers and 200 million new cooks in the United States alone, and many more globally. Yes, those are big numbers, but not unfathomable.

Remember that the United States is home to over 300 million people; do the math. This means that 100 million people will be growing some sort of food and at least 200 million will be cooking it (and some of those folks will be the same). Now even though I’ve delved into the numbers here a little bit, please don’t get all hung up on them in order to avoid the larger topic. If you go to the U.S. Census Bureau website and start crunching the numbers, you’re missing the point. Their proposal is for millions more people to grow and cook food.

“Cook food? Well I cook every day,” folks may say. Some people do actually cook from ingredients, but many more do not. The vast majority of Americans reheat a processed food product and call that cooking. We heat up a can of soup (I’m as guilty as the next gal), make cakes and muffins from a mix, and preheat the oven for frozen pizza. The book urges us to start cooking from scratch with whole foods and not to look at that endeavor as drudgery or a waste of time.

As for the farming aspect of the book, it’s eye-opening as to what the average farmer looks like worldwide: a woman who farms an average of four acres. So that may change your perception of who can farm and what you need in order to do so. Does that mean we dump all of our farmers and ranchers? No. It means we start farming suburbia in addition to the countryside. People will say that they live in town, don’t have room, etc., etc. If you have a lawn, you have room to grow food. And if you don’t have a lawn, you might have a balcony or a stoop for pots. Community gardens are excellent spaces for apartment-dwellers to grow some of their own food. Astyk and Newton challenge people to look at under-utilized land as food-growing space — boulevards, vacant lots, and lawns.

Lastly, the authors elevate farming as a noble pursuit. Let’s admit it, American culture does not value farming anymore and labels them with a hefty list of derogatory names. We don’t want our children to grow up to be farmers; somehow a computer programmer who writes code for video games has more status than a farmer. Ever try to eat a Wii?

So let’s raise the call: be one of those new farmers and cooks, spread the word, and teach our children. Let’s regain control of our food system with a spade in one hand a wooden spoon in the other.

Country Skills book

If you’re looking for a neat collection of self-sufficiency articles, pick up the new edition of Mother Earth News’ Country Skills book. Articles range in topic from basic canning advice to picking heritage breeds of livestock. There’s even an article on raising dairy goats. Also, it has that five-minute bread recipe I wrote about in the Daily Fresh Bread post. It won’t be on newsstands forever, so pick up a copy soon!