Thursday, August 27, 2009

The First Ratatouille of Summer

I stopped by the farmer's market in Boston's Copley Square the other day, in search of some baby golden cauli-flower. I was looking forward to making this delicious pasta sauce that gives your mouth the sensation of a creamy alfredo, but without the fat and calories. I believe this dish was created by George Germon and Johanne Killeen of Al Forno fame--I think it was from a Boston Globe article about what chefs make for Valentine's Day--but I long ago lost both the article and the recipe, so now I have to make it up as I go along.

Anyway, I stopped by Siena Farms, one of my favorite stands. (It's owned by Farmer Chris, husband of Oleana's Ana Sortun.) I didn't see any cauliflower, but there were some beautiful San Marzano tomatoes, which got me thinking about another one of my favorite summer dishes: ratatouille.

The thing that makes this recipe so special is that instead of stewing everything in a big pot on top of the stove, you first roast the eggplant, onions, squash, and peppers in the oven, then mix
it with a quick-simmered sauce of plum tomatoes seasoned with garlic, minced chilies, and some thyme. It has a deep, rich flavor and a hearty texture the stove-top versions lack.

The recipe, which I found in Gourmet, is actually a sauce for pasta, but I've never served it that way. Usually, I use it as a side with grilled lamb from the Chestnut Lamb Co-op stand at the Seacoast Grower's Farmer's Market in Portsmouth, NH, which is what I'm going to do this time. Oh, and as soon as I find that cauliflower, I'll share that recipe with you. too.

Ratatouille with Penne -- from Gourmet, September 1999
Active time: 1 1/2 hours; total time: 1 3/4 hours

2 eggplants (about 1 1/2 lbs) cut into 1/2" cubes
4 onions, chopped
1/2 cup olive oil
coarse kosher salt to taste
4 yellow squash (about 1 1/2 lbs) cut into 1/2" cubes (I sometimes use a mixture of yellow and zucchini)
2 large red peppers (cut into 1/2" cubes)

1 hot pepper, minced
8 plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
7 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1 1/2 lbs penne rigate (with ridges) (if serving with pasta)
1/2 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
Parmigiano-Reggiano to taste (if serving with pasta)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees

Stir together eggplant, onion, 1/4 cup olive oil, and kosher salt in a large roasting pan, then roast mixture in middle of oven, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Stir in squash, bell peppers, 2 T olive oil, and more salt, and roast, stirring occasionally, until peppers are tender, 25 to 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, simmer tomatoes, garlic, minced hot pepper, thyme, remaining 2 T olive oil, and kosher salt in a heavy saucepan, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 12 to 15 minutes.

If serving without pasta, turn tomato mixture into eggplant mixture, season to taste with salt and pepper. Mix in basil and parsley and serve while warm or at room temperature. Serves approximately 12 as a side dish.

If serving with pasta, cook the penne in a six-quart pot of boiling salted water until al dente, and drain. Meanwhile combine eggplant mixture and tomato mixture and season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in basil and parsley. Toss penne with 1/3 of the ratatouille, and served topped with remainder. Sprinkle with cheese, if desired.

NOTE: Ratatouille can be made 2 days ahead and chilled. Reheat before using with pasta. Serves 6 as a main dish.