Filed under: challenge, dinner, farmers markets, local, phoenix, recipe | Tags: disney, eggplant, julia child, olive oil, patience, ratatouille, seasonality, summer, tomato, zucchini
Last week, while I was meandering the market, I came across some gorgeous eggplants from Maya’s Farm. Knowing that eggplant season is almost over, I nearly abandoned my brats and cabbage recipe to make ratatouille. However, after being assured that the purple and white graffiti eggplant would still be available for another week, I decided to wait.
It was a risky decision. We really are at the end of summer here in Phoenix (even though it’s still 90 degrees outside) and the temperatures are finally starting to cool down. I spent my week hoping that there would still be tomatoes, bell peppers, zucchini and eggplant at the market so I could finally make ratatouille.
You see, I’ve been wanting to make ratatouille for over a year now. This desire, incidentally, is due entirely to the fact that I didn’t know eggplant came in more than one color until spotting a group of them – white, purple and graffiti – all nestled together in a French grocery store. I didn’t make ratatouille then because it was February and, as everyone knows, tomatoes taste terrible in February. But when I saw those graffiti eggplants last week I knew my ratatouille making time had finally come but, once again, I was really pushing the boundaries of the season.
The first thing I did after arriving at the market on Saturday was hustle my way over to Maya’s Farm’s stand to check if they still had eggplants. You can imagine my horror when I only saw about 10 of the bulbous little vegetables all clumped together and a smattering of the long, skinny eggplants available for purchase. I had initially planned to make sure all my ingredients were still purchasable, but I didn’t want to risk having those last few eggplants bought out from under me. So I snapped up two pounds and went on my merry way.
I was toying with the idea of creating the dish in the style from the popular Disney film Ratatouille, but I was concerned that there wouldn’t be any zucchini or summer squash in the market making it impossible to achieve those layers of rainbow. As I continued my shopping I discovered my hunch was right – the summer squash and zucchini were done for the season. As beautiful as the eggplants were, I knew that alternating layers of eggplant and bell pepper wouldn’t be nearly as visually appealing or, more importantly, flavorful as the zucchini laden version. As it was, I had to double the eggplant the Julia Child recipe calls for to make up for the lack of that oh-so-abundant summer vegetable (the market was full of winter squash varieties, but I don’t suppose butternut squash would go very well in this dish).
Tomatoes, bell peppers, garlic, onion, apples and crusty bread – and my precious eggplants safely in hand – I headed home. However, as I began to cook I realized that this recipe was really an exercise in wishful thinking. I was cooking these summer vegetables too late in the season. The tomatoes were mealy and green in the center, the eggplant a little soft, the peppers lacking flavor and the squash completely absent. Amazingly, the dish pulled together and turned out fine, but I know my final product was lacking that bright, tomato punch and variety of rich flavors that I typically associate with ratatouille.
Despite the poor showing of my vegetables, I did finally get to make the dish I’ve been dreaming of for months and I learned that, even though everything wasn’t as fresh as it could have been, the cooking process really does wonders to bring out each individual flavor.
Getting over my disappointment, I sliced the eggplants in two different ways to simulate the different textures that you find when the zucchini is present and I made sure not to over cook the dish to avoid the mushy texture to which eggplants are prone. I also generously seasoned each vegetable to help the flavor process along.
I think the secret to this dish’s success was the olive oil from the Queen Creek Olive Mill. Until now it’s been an unsung hero in my recipes, but the bright, complex flavor that their extra virgin variety holds saved the day. Without the Queen Creek mill, this dish would not have been possible. So, three cheers for the Olive Mill!
This is not an easy dish, it takes about two hours from start to finish and requires a decent amount of patience. As I was cooking I decided it was time to relinquish my summer cooking dreams and face seasonality. Those tomatoes in the market are at the end of their run and the summer vegetables are starting to wane. Because I, like the grasshopper, haven’t stored away produce for the winter it’s time for some creativity. From here on out I will do my best to work with what’s in season – whatever that means here in the Valley of the Sun.
Adapted from Julia Child
Serves 6 – 8 as a side dish, 4 as a main course
1 pound zucchini
1 tsp salt
4 tbsp olive oil, more if needed
2 sliced green bell peppers
2 cloves mashed garlic
1 pound firm, ripe tomatoes peeled, seeded and juiced
3 tablespoons basil
salt and pepper to taste
Peel the eggplant and cut into long slices, 3/8 thick, 3 inches long and 1 inch wide. Slice the zucchini (or the substituted eggplant in my case) into 3/8 thick rounds. Place the vegetables into a colander resting in a bowl, toss with 1 tsp salt and let stand for 30 minutes. Rinse and dry each slice. While the eggplant and zucchini are giving up their juice, it’s a good time to peel, seed and juice the tomatoes. To do so, place the tomatoes in boiling water for 10 seconds. Remove them from the water and quickly core the top and slide the skin off. Cut the tomato in half and pull out the seeds with your hands, give them a little squeeze to get the juice out. You do not need the juice for this recipe.
In a cast iron pan, sauté the eggplant and zucchini in hot olive oil, one layer at a time, until lightly browned on both sides. Remove to a side dish.
In the same pan, slowly cook the onions and peppers until tender. Stir in the garlic and season to taste.
Slice the tomato pulp into 3/8 inch strips, lay them over the onions and peppers. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover the skillet and cook over low heat for 5 minutes or until the tomatoes start to give up their juices. Uncover, baste the tomatoes with the juices and boil for several minutes until the juice is almost entirely evaporated.
Remove 2/3 of the tomato, pepper and onion mixture from the pan. Sprinkle 1/3 of the basil over the remaining mixture and arrange half of the eggplant and zucchini on top. Add half the remaining tomato mixture and basil. Put in the rest of the eggplant and zucchini, tomato mixture and basil.
Cover the dish and simmer over low heat for 10 minutes. Uncover, and baste the casserole with the juices that have rendered. Raise the heat slightly (be careful here, it’s easy to burn the bottom part of the mixture) and cook uncovered for about 10 more minutes (15 if you like your vegetables to be softer) frequently basting the mixture. Once the juice and olive oil mixture is nearly evaporated stop cooking – it will burn otherwise.
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