Archives for category: Tomatoes

What do you make in August, peak of the summer harvest, when stands at the farmers market overflow with zucchini, eggplant, and tomatoes?

Ratatouille! Traditionally a French Provençal dish of stewed vegetables and herbs, ratatouille is a meal on its own, makes for a great lunch, or can be paired with grilled meats. Yuji suggested preparing it with lamb in the same pot which actually sounds quite good. Next time. Variations on the recipe abound, and my own changes include the addition of chickpeas and a garnish of grated Parmesan (or Ricotta Salata, as I used last night).

The first time I tried something like ratatouille was about twelve years ago, when my step-mom Bonnie made a quick dinner of whole canned tomatoes, eggplant, and chickpeas. I believe she didn’t even use garlic or an onion. To my young taste buds this dish was a revelation.

Since then I’ve tinkered and tweaked, and like the recipe below. I sometimes make more of a sauce to serve over pasta (more tomatoes, more olive oil), but no longer make the variation that included tofu. (Hey, you learn by making mistakes.)

Julia Child’s ratatouille recipe will probably produce good results but seemed overly fussy to me, too many steps for what is essentially simple, peasant fare. (Yuji thought I described the dish as “prison” food instead of “peasant” food. Who knows, maybe they do serve ratatouille in French prisons.)

Here is my version, which makes enough for lots of leftovers, and is hard to mess up.

As an aside I just have to say I miss playing with my friends’ Canon 7D Digital SLR camera on Long Island. That’s what took the photos of my blog posts from out there and it’s hard to go back to the ole iPhone so I’m saving up for a serious upgrade.

Summer Ratatouille

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 medium to large eggplants or 3 small, chopped in roughly 1/2-inch pieces
salt and pepper
2 zucchinis, roughly chopped
1 large red or white onion, or 2 smaller
2 tbsp fresh thyme, chopped, plus a few stems with leaves still on
2 tbsp minced garlic
2 large tomatoes, chopped, or 1 pint Sun Golds, halved, or 4 plum tomatoes, chopped
3/4 c dried chick peas, soaked and cooked, or 1 12-oz can, rinsed and drained
3/4 cup basil leaves, roughly chopped, for garnish
Parmesan or Ricotta Salata, for garnish

Serves 4-5 as a main, 6-7 as a side

1. Heat the oil in a large sautée pan over medium heat. Add the eggplant and season with salt and pepper. Continue to cook over medium heat until the eggplant becomes soft and golden, about 10-15 minutes.

2. Then add the zucchini, stirring occasionally, until mostly softened, 5 minutes. Add the onion and cook an additional few minutes, stirring. Next add the chopped thyme and a couple stems, which you will discard later. After a few minutes add the garlic.

3. Add the tomatoes, cook until they begin to fall apart, then add the chickpeas. Let this cook for another 5-10 minutes then remove from heat and fish out the thyme stems and discard. Garnish with basil and grated cheese. Serve on its own, with nice crusty bread and butter, or with grilled chicken or lamb.

Photo ©Thai Food Blog

So you may have noticed by now that I love pesto. And I did do two back-to-back posts involving some kind of pasta and this will be my third. But did you know I adore eggplant? Love it in almost all its forms, preparations, and oddities?

I heard recently we refer to them as eggplants because once upon a time it was common to see the small white variety that really do resemble eggs, like in the photo above, unlike the large, bulbous, and purple type most of us grew up seeing, at least here in the U.S.

My earliest associations with this nightshade are of goopy, yet delicious, fried eggplant Parmesan dishes served up all over the Long Island of my youth. The southern Italians that fanned out across the island appeared to like eggplant as much as I now do. You couldn’t even really taste the eggplant, it was mostly mozzarella and tomato sauce masquerading as a meal. I had no idea back then that eggplants are used in Indian, Middle Eastern, Thai, and Japanese cooking as well. Apparently the Italians don’t have a monopoly on the purple bulb. Its origins are actually Indian.

Eggplants are all the rage right now at farmers’ markets in New York City. Big ones, little ones, striped ones, skinny ones, fat ones. They must be drooping heavily from their plants at farms upstate in the heat and sunshine of the past month. Eggplants like it hot. I saw them on Saturday at McCarren Park but passed them over in favor of other in-season veggies, so when I eyed them at today’s market in Union Square on my way to work (I swear I have another legitimate reason to hang around Union Square besides stalking vegetables), I decided to buy one in the hopes I’d make something of it for dinner tonight. But first, a digression.

I sometimes hear that shopping at farmers’ markets is expensive. A luxury that only those with disposable incomes can afford. Granted, some items at the market are expensive and can be had for less at grocery stores. I would love to buy local NYC honey for example, but often can’t afford it. Or perhaps I can afford it, but we’re making decisions all the time about what to spend our hard-earned money on and what not to. And I think that’s the point isn’t it? I go on and on about farmers’ markets and seasonal vegetables and I put my money where my mouth is.

To me, good quality food is important. So is a good value. There are lots of things I pass up at the market because I’m not willing to spend over a certain amount on certain things. But there are lots of things at the market I am willing to pay for, often because the quality and taste is exceptional and it’s a good value. And, because I love food and eating in season and eating a tomato that tastes like a tomato. I don’t really spend money on concerts, sporting events, yoga, alcohol, pets, phones or other tech gadgets, teeth whitening, or a number of other things you may part with your money for. For me, it’s food, travel, books, and the occasional movie ticket. We’re always choosing what to do with our money, if we’re lucky to have a little extra after we pay the bills.

Let’s cut to the chase. The eggplant around which I built tonight’s dinner cost $1.25 (less than almost every cup of coffee in NYC these days). The pint of splendid sungold cherry tomatoes was $3.50 (definitely less than a latte at Starbucks). The kale I bought at the youth farmers’ market in Clinton Hill yesterday was a whopping $2 (probably less than a Whopper). The pasta I bought in bulk from the food co-op (some Whole Foods also sell pasta in bulk) and the amount I used tonight cost approximately 75¢. Let’s talk peaches: 3 for $2 at today’s market. Maybe that sounds like a lot, maybe it doesn’t. All I know is, when I bit into it this afternoon, its juices dripped down my arm and the yellow flesh tasted of the best memories of summer. Worth every 67 pennies.

So tonight’s meal cost somewhere around $7.50 and made 4 servings. That’s $1.88 per serving. Or what I call a happy meal.

Now economics aside, it’s time to get cooking. By the time I got home and rolling it was nearing 9 pm, not an unusual start time for dinner prep in my apartment. I put a pot of salted water on the stove to boil for the pasta. I then got out a large sauté pan, added to it 1-2 tbsp olive oil, and turned up the heat.

While the pan got hot I chopped one shallot and 3 leftover scapes I still had in my fridge. Threw them into the sauté pan and let that go for about 4-5 minutes until the onions browned. Meanwhile I diced and salted the eggplant then threw that into the pan. I washed and chopped a bunch of kale (it was probably 5-6 cups) and added that to the pan after the eggplant looked mostly cooked. Once the water in my pasta pot boiled I added about 1 cup of tri-color rotini, let it cook for 7-8 minutes, al dente.

Once the kale had wilted I added 1 cup of the cherry tomatoes, sliced in half, and turned the heat off. I didn’t need for the tomatoes to cook, just to get a little squishy and warm, which they did beautifully. I then drained the pasta and added it to the pan of veggies. The pièce de résistance was 4 tbsp of leftover homemade basil pesto stirred in at the end for a little kick.

The dish was gobbled up quickly. The onions were sweet and browned and stuck to the pesto which hung to the eggplant which clung to the pasta in a choreography of summer vegetable heaven. As Ina Garten might say, “You can’t beat that.”

I’ve been wanting to try Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s ABC Kitchen ever since it opened a little over a year ago in ABC Carpet & Home in the Union Square/Flatiron neighborhood of New York.

A celebrated chef, known for his elegant, dare I use the word ‘fusion,’ of classic French techniques with the flavors of other lands—Japan, or in this case, upstate New York—Jean-Georges has opened restaurants all over this city, most of which are successful (Jean-Georges, Perry Street, Mercer Kitchen) and only one or two considered misses perhaps (Vong, Spice Market).

ABC Kitchen is his version of capturing the gastronomical zeitgeist – casual, local, seasonal, downtown, and affordable (relatively speaking), as some chefs of his ilk have done of late (Daniel Boulud’s DBGB comes to mind). I don’t normally wish for chefs to expand their restaurant empires or jump on food trends, but I do wonder what Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin or Dan Barber of Blue Hill would do with more casual offshoots of their formal flagship restaurants. Of course, I don’t want either of these upstanding chefs to dilute the strength of their focused efforts, I just fantasize about the possibility of a weekday lunch of, say, a Fin Dorset lamb sandwich with garlic scapes and micro arugula (at my imaginary Blue Hill); or yellowfin tuna, shaved chives, and olive oil layered on a toasted baguette (at make-believe Le Bernardin).

ABC Kitchen promises a changing menu based on the seasons and local produce surrounding New York. The produce is reared without exposure to synthetic fertilizers or pesticides (the culinary equivalent of television); the meat and fish are pasture-raised, or line-caught, or sustainably harvested; the dairy is free of antibiotics, from animals treated humanely and fed a free-roaming diet of grass and probably coconut water.

My first view into the restaurant was on the Sundance Channel’s Iconoclast program last year, on an episode with Jean-Georges and Hugh Jackman, where the two prepare a charity dinner at the newly opened ABC Kitchen. Furnished with wares that can be purchased at ABC Carpet & Home, including the tables, chairs, bowls, plates, stemware, flower vases, and lighting fixtures, the restaurant has a comfortable, urban farmhouse feel about it. Downtown meets Upstate. French fries meet foie gras. Fine dining meets…ABC Carpet.

My dining companion once again was my friend Sarah (of Sunday’s Roman’s adventure), in town briefly from Vancouver. I made the reservation one week prior to our lunch which, to my relief, was plenty of time to book a 1 pm table on a weekday. The first thing I noticed upon our arrival was the gracious efforts of the host and the light-hearted chattiness of the fellow who escorted us to our table (“isn’t this weather so fresh?”)

I often have difficulty deciding what to order, especially if I know I may not return to a restaurant before the menu changes. In this case indecision would be an understatement. The cocktail menu alone included an entire section on fresh-squeezed vegetable-herb juices, fresh-fruit smoothies, and homemade sodas infused with herbs and citrus. I’m surprised they weren’t serving kombucha on tap! I opted for the coconut water and Sarah chose a dry, acidic white wine.

I love a restaurant companion who enjoys sharing plates as much as I do. That way you get to try twice as many items on the menu than you would if eating separate dishes. Sarah was game, so for our first course, we ordered the sweet pea soup with carrots and mint and the roasted carrot and avocado salad with crunchy seeds. It was difficult neglecting the appetizer of raw diver scallops with sea beans and serrano chilies and the crab toast with lemon aioli. We’d stare at waiters passing by with dishes for other tables to assess whether we’d made good decisions. (The crab toast, I have to say, being devoured by a neighboring table, looked quite good.)

I half-expected the pea soup to arrive chilled, but bucking that trend it is served hot, a bright green purée with crunchy pesto croutons and what tasted like the zest of lime. The salad was an abundance of micro greens (that may have been grown on the restaurant’s rooftop garden) sitting atop two perfectly roasted whole carrots, with quarters of ripe avocado.

For our main courses, we chose the steamed hake with roasted maitake, asparagus and spring onions; and the asparagus and heirloom tomato sandwich on focaccia with mozzarella and what I remember as pickled onions or radishes, hot peppers, and a side of house-cut french fries dusted with fresh rosemary and salt.

We lingered over the flavors of our first course for so long that we were startled out of our oohs and ahhs by our server bringing the second course before we were done with the soup and salad. They asked to clear our first-course plates when Sarah and I simultaneously and defensively pulled them in close and asked to keep them. I couldn’t discard the three spoonfuls of soup left or the tiny nub of roasted carrot remaining on the plate!

The second course did not disappoint. The focaccia was a soft and salty foil to the heat of the peppers and pickles, the mozzarella a smooth and silky pillow for the ripe red tomatoes. Olive oil oozed over my hands as I took big bites, taking care to get each layer of the sandwich in each mouthful. The hake was flaky, moist, infused with a light vinaigrette and when eaten together with the maitake produced the perfect bite. The asparagus was diced into tiny round pieces laying underneath and on top of the hake filet.

We were entirely too full to tackle dessert but coveted our neighbor’s sundae of vanilla ice cream with caramel and popcorn. Next time. Because this is, after all, Jean-Georges downtown, so there can be a next time.

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