Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Tale of Two Ratatouilles

Last year a friend gave a tomato tasting party. I foolishly volunteered to make a ratatouille so we could taste his tomatoes both raw and cooked. The mid-August date was selected to be sure the tomatoes would have had plenty of sun. A few days before the event, we picked 16 pounds of his ripest tomatoes and 16 pounds of his zucchini (which were large enough to win prizes at state fairs). For those who don’t recall,  let me refresh your memory about the weather last August.  We had rain and/or clouds for the first two weeks, which did not bode well for the taste of our fresh tomatoes. The ratatouille was a great disappointment.  I decided to let the flavors mellow overnight, when I tasted it he next morning I declared it was “not bad.” “‘Not bad?’ asked Gerard incredulously. “You can’t bring ‘not bad.’ You are a food editor. It has to be wonderful.” I knew he was right.  So we went shopping and started over with tomatoes that were not so local that they had had no sun and found zucchini that were small and concentrated with flavor. From this we produced a damn good ratatouille.

At the party one of the women at my table raved about the dish. I thanked her and gave credit to Patricia Wells, the cookbook author whose recipe I had followed.  “But her recipes are so ‘iffy,’” she said. I retorted, “That is probably because she lives in Provence, where the vegetables are so full of flavor that it takes little cooking to turn out something wonderful,” and realized the wisdom of my own words.    The gentleman to my left added, “My wife liked your dish.”  I thanked him and nodded.  “Ah—you do not know who she is or what she does?” I slowly shook my head. “She is Dana Cowin, editor in chief of Food & Wine magazine.” “Thank you, Gerard,” I thought. “Good thing I did not bring the first batch!”.

I was reminded of this story because this weekend, I made that recipe again. And again it was not very good. The tomatoes, although “good,” just did not have the great taste required for this recipe. So the next morning, I added the other vegetables, as described in the traditional recipe below, and it was lovely. The lesson is, of course, what I had said without thinking. When the tomatoes are GREAT in flavor, they do not need much, and the rapid ratatouille recipe is perfect. If the tomatoes are just “good,” they need the onions, peppers, and eggplant to add flavor: a lesson so simple one wonders why I had not realized it before.

Speedy Ratatouille  Serves 6–8
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds, or about 10 small, very fresh unpeeled zucchini, washed and thinly sliced
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves,
Sea salt
3 plump, fresh cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 pounds fresh tomatoes (plum are best), cored, peeled, seeded and chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 teaspoons best-quality red wine vinegar
In a very large skillet over moderately high heat, heat the olive oil until hot but not smoking. Add the zucchini and 1 teaspoon of thyme leaves. Sauté, shaking the pan from time to time until the zucchini is just beginning to brown (about five minutes). Add the salt and garlic, stir, and cook for a minute or two. (The salt will cause the zucchini to give off liquid, which will prevent the garlic from burning.) Add tomatoes, tomato paste and vinegar, and continue to sauté, shaking the pan until all of the ingredients blend well and most of the liquid is absorbed (about ten minutes). Add  remaining thyme and serve.  


Traditional Ratatouille  Serves 6–8

1/2 cup olive oil

2 onions, sliced into thin rings
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 pounds, or about 10, small, very fresh unpeeled zucchini, washed and cut into very thin slices
1 medium eggplant, cubed
3 bell peppers, seeded and sliced very thick
Salt and pepper to taste
1 bay leaf
4 sprigs fresh thyme
2 pounds fresh tomatoes, cored, peeled, seeded and chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley


Heat 1½ tablespoons of the oil in a large pot over medium-low heat. Add onions and garlic and cook until soft. In a large skillet, heat 1½ tablespoon of oil and sauté the zucchini in batches until slightly browned on all sides. Remove zucchini and place in the pot with onions and garlic. Sauté bell peppers and eggplant one batch at a time, adding 1½ tablespoons oil to the skillet for each. Add each batch once sautéed  to the large pot. Add salt, pepper, bay leaf and thyme and cover the pot. Cook over medium heat for 15 to 20 minutes.
Add chopped tomatoes and parsley and cook another 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the bay leaf before serving.

Cucumber and Dill Salad

A refreshing sweet and sour summer salad that is very easy to make.  A lovely side dish to almost anything grilled with very few calories and no fat!  You will need either a mandoline or a food processor that cuts paper thin slices.

(serves 4)
2 European or hot house cucumbers (the extra long and thin kind)
2 teaspoons of coarse salt
¼ cup white wine vinegar
¼ cup chopped fresh dill
1½ tablespoons of sugar

Rinse the cucumbers and with a fork score the skin lengthwise so that there is a striping effect.
Slice them paper thin and place in a colander and sprinkle the salt all over. Let stand at room temperature and toss them every couple of minutes so the salt will work its draining effect on every slice.

In a medium bowl dissolve the sugar in the vinegar and add the chopped dill.

Rinse, drain and pat dry the cucumber slices and add them to the sauce. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to two hours.

Half Baked Fried Chicken

The great thing about fried chicken is that whether you eat the breading or not, it keeps the chicken meat moist while cooking. Another advantage of this recipe is that it enables you to make more than one skillet full of chicken at a time.

Fried chicken can be enjoyed hot or at room temperature, which makes it a perfect dish for a picnic or a tailgating party. There are two drawbacks: deep frying often results in chicken that is too greasy, and it is nearly impossible, I find, to fry the dark meat long enough to cook the inside without burning the crust.

This is based on a traditional Maryland Fried Chicken recipe. I guess that is South but not “Deep South,” which may explain why the chicken is fried but not deep fried.

(Serves 6–8 people)

1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons paprika
Salt and pepper
3 eggs
3 tablespoons water
3 cups dry bread crumbs
Two 3-pound chickens, cut up in pieces, at room temperature
Vegetable oil


Preheat oven to 350°F.

Mix flour with paprika, salt, and pepper in a medium-size bowl. Mix eggs and water in a medium-size bowl. Mix crumbs and salt in another medium-size bowl. Coat chicken with flour mixture. Dip flour-coated chicken into egg mixture; coat chicken with crumb mixture.

Heat oil (1/4-inch deep) in a skillet over medium high heat until hot. First fry the dark meat chicken in oil for seven to ten minutes, or until light brown on all sides, and then remove them from the oil and lay them to rest on a paper towel to absorb excess fat. Then do the same with the white meat, which should need only four to six minutes.

Place chicken in a large roasting pan in the oven and cover with aluminum foil. Bake for about 45 minutes, or until done (the exact timing will depend upon the size of the chicken pieces). To ensure doneness take a long, thin knife or metal skewer and stick into one of the larger dark-meat pieces. If it is hot to the touch (best judged by your lip) when removed, the chicken is done on the inside.

Pat with paper towels to absorb excess fat and serve immediately, or allow to cool down to room temperature.