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Stars of the Summer Garden

Ratatouille

We wait all summer for this: red-ripe tomatoes, fat purple eggplant, sweet red peppers, and summer squash galore. Now is the time to capture those flavors, while they’re at their height, and what better dish than Ratatouille (the name even sounds like a celebration) to celebrate the stars of the summer garden? The dish originates in Southern France, where a medley of vegetables is sautéed in generous amounts of olive oil and layered into a casserole, or ragout. My version strayed over into Sicily or Spain. I grill my vegetables, so what I am making is really more like Ratatouille’s Catalan relative, Escalivada, meaning “baked over embers.” I like the fire-roasted flavor and the way the grilling makes it easy for each vegetable to keep its individual identity and texture intact. Oven roasting is a good alternative to grilling–the principle is the same: Cook the vegetables separately with high heat to caramelize the juices and concentrate the flavor. Marry the flavors after the vegetables are cooked and highlight with fresh herbs, garlic, and a splash of fresh lemon juice or balsamic vinegar. 

Ratatouille  Escalivada 

Grilled Ratatouille 

EggplantVegetables: 2 medium eggplants (about 1 1/4 pounds), 2 medium red onions, 2 or 3 large red or yellow bell peppers (or Italian roasting peppers), 4 small or 2 medium zucchini, 10 plum or 5 to 6 medium round red-ripe tomatoes (1 1/2 pounds), 6 to 8 large garlic cloves, a handful torn basil leaves, and 2 Tbs chopped mixed fresh herbs: parsley, thyme, marjoram, oregano…

Additional ingredients: extra virgin olive oil, fresh lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, coarse sea salt or kosher salt, and freshly ground black pepper.

Heat a gas or charcoal grill to medium-high while you prepare the vegetables. Thinly slice the garlic and heat it in a small pan with 1/3-cup extra virgin olive oil just until bubbles begin to rise around the garlic. Turn off the heat and set aside. Peel lengthwise strips of skin off the eggplant, leaving stripes, and cut into 1/2 inch slices (if the eggplant are small, cut them lengthwise); cut the onions into quarters or 1/2-inch thick slices and secure with toothpicks; cut the zucchini into halves or quarters lengthwise; cut the plum tomatoes in half . Leave the peppers whole. Brush the eggplant, onion, tomatoes and zucchini with the garlic oil (reserve the garlic!) to coat well. Sprinkle lightly with coarse salt.

Grill the vegetables: If using a gas grill, start grilling with all burners on medium-high to high (it depends on how hot your grill gets). Arrange the vegetables on the hot grill– brown one side, then flip and brown the other. Grill with the lid down. If you grill over charcoal, build a two-zone fire to have a hot side and a medium-low side. Grill the vegetables uncovered over the hot coals to sear both sides; move to the cooler side and cover to finish cooking.

Eggplant and zucchini can be grilled at the same time–they both take 4 to 6 minutes per side and need to be checked often. Grill the onions, peppers, and plum tomatoes together for a total of about 10 to 12 minutes. Move the onions and tomatoes to low heat if they need further cooking after searing both sides. Rotate the peppers until the skin is charred on all sides and put them in a paper bag to cool before peeling.

Don’t undercook! The great flavor comes from the juices caramelizing at high heat. The vegetables should be well browned and tender inside. As they finish cooking, transfer to a large platter or baking dish.

Peel the tomatoes if you like; separate the onion into layers or rings; peel and cut the peppers into thick slices, cut the zucchini and eggplant into 1-inch pieces. Gently combine the vegetables in a large serving bowl or shallow platter– mixed or layered or arranged in an artful design, however you like. Distribute the slivers of garlic, basil leaves and chopped herbs; add a squeeze or two fresh lemon juice or a splash balsamic vinegar, salt and black pepper to taste. For a Sicilian touch, add 1/2 tsp ground cumin seed, 1/2 tsp paprika, and 2 or 3 minced hot red chiles.

Oven-Roasting: Pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees F. Cut the eggplant into 1/2-inch slices; brush each side with olive oil, sprinkle with kosher salt, and place the slices on a baking sheet or roasting pan. Quarter the zucchini and cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces; slice the onions lengthwise into wedges; seed the peppers and cut into thick slices; peel the garlic cloves and leave them whole; cut the tomatoes in half and gently squeeze out the seeds, salt them lightly and place upside down in a colander to drain. Toss the zucchini, onion, garlic, and peppers with 4 Tbs extra virgin olive oil, two tsp chopped rosemary, a few sprigs thyme, and sprinkle with kosher salt. Spread the vegetables on a large roasting pan in a single layer. Put both pans in the oven. After 15 minutes, flip the eggplant over and stir the vegetables gently.  Place the tomatoes cut side up on a baking sheet.  Roast all the vegetables another 15 to 20 minutes, until tender and starting to char. When done, chop the eggplant into chunks. Scrape all the vegetables and their juices into a bowl; toss with fresh herbs and fresh lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste.

We ate our Ratatouille wrapped in freshly made pita bread, with yogurt sauce, cucumber salad, and a big pot of brown lentils cooked with Andouille sausage.

Here’s what to do with extra Ratatouille: Eat it on crusty toasted bread; toss it with pasta; serve it along side grilled meat or chicken kebabs…or on top of grilled fish; eat it with couscous; wrap it in a flatbread; add more chiles and make it into salsa; mix it into a salad of white beans and olives; top a pizza, fill an omelet or a calzone…

Eggplant Dinner

Eggplant

Roasted or grilled slices of eggplant (even zucchini!) are so good, you may want to stop right there. Follow the directions for oven roasting or grilling and make a topping for the crusty, succulent eggplant. Zucchini slices make excellent roll-ups. Any kind of bruschetta topping is good on roasted eggplant or zucchini–here are a few ideas:

*Bean Salad: Warm 2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil with 2 tsp whole cumin seed, about 1 minute. When the cumin is fragrant, add a finely chopped onion and sauté until soft, 5 or 6 minutes. Add 1 Tbs finely chopped garlic and 1 or 2 finely chopped fresh hot red chiles (use sweet peppers if you don’t like heat). Sauté 1 minute. Add 1 1/2 cups cooked garbanzo or white beans and stir to combine, add salt to taste. Cook over low heat 5 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and toss with 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley, 2 Tbs chopped fresh mint, and 2 or 3 tsp fresh lemon juice

Red Peppers*Roasted Red Pepper Salsa: Roast 1 or 2 red bell peppers with the eggplant. When the peppers are charred (about 15-20 minutes), take them from the oven and cover them with a kitchen towel for 10 to 20 minutes. Peel off the skin, remove the seeds, and chop the peppers into small dice. Mix with a few Tbs finely chopped red onion, 1 clove minced garlic, 1 Tbs capers, a few Tbs chopped green and black olives, 2 Tbs chopped fresh mint, and balsamic vinegar to taste.

Eggplant with Nasturtium*Goat Cheese and Nasturtium Flowers

*Spicy Greens with Feta Cheese: Dress some chopped arugula and spicy mesclun greens with extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Toss with crumbled feta and toasted walnuts or pine nuts.

Egglpant Wraps*Herbed Ricotta with Ham and Tomato: Mix 1 cup whole milk ricotta with 1 Tbs finely chopped mint, 1 tsp finely chopped thyme, 1/2 tsp lemon zest, and 3 Tbs freshly grated parmesan or pecorino. Spread a spoonful of cheese over a thin slice of ham and top with chopped sundried or fresh tomato.

Brown Lentils with Sausage

I’m including this recipe because the lentils paired so well with the ratatouille in a flatbread meal. Besides, the dish is endorsed by Martha, who would rather paint than cook, so if she asks for a recipe I know it is good.

Rinse 2 cups lentils and put them in a saucepan with 3 or 4 sprigs fresh thyme, a big sprig fresh rosemary, a small hot chile, 1/2 tsp salt, and 6 cups water. Bring to a boil, cover the pot, and simmer 20 minutes, or until barely tender.

While the lentils cook, warm 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil in a good-sized sauté pan or Dutch oven with 1 bay leaf and 1 tsp crushed cumin seed. Stir in 1 1/2 cups chopped onion and sauté 2 or 3 minutes. Stir in 1 cup finely chopped carrot, reduce the heat to low, and cover the pot. Allow to cook about 5 minutes, until the onion and carrot have softened. Stir in 2 minced garlic, 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes, 2 tsp finely chopped rosemary, 2 tsp thyme leaves, and 1/2 tsp salt. Cook 1 minute. Add 4 cups chopped fresh tomatoes and 1 cup green beans, cut in small pieces. Simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes.

When the lentils are ready, drain off the extra liquid (save for soup broth) and add them to the vegetables, along with chunks or slices of cooked sausage (I grilled the Andouille sausage). Stir to combine and simmer 5 to 10 minutes to blend the flavors. Stir in a few Tbs chopped parsley and cilantro leaves. Taste for seasoning and add a splash of balsamic vinegar or fresh lemon juice.

Note: About 1 1/2 cups Tabouli salad from lunch went into these lentils, as well. The pot made just enough for 8 people.

Yogurt Sauce

Mix 1 cup whole milk or Greek-style strained yogurt with 1/2 tsp freshly toasted and ground cumin seed and 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper. Stir in 2 Tbs chopped fresh mint, 6 to 8 chopped basil leaves, 1 minced garlic clove, a little lemon zest, and salt to taste.

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Antipasti: Welcome to the table!

Antipasti are a brilliant invitation to a meal, or a meal in itself. I love eating this way–little plates of savory tid-bits to choose from, mixing contrasting flavors, texture and color as you take each bite. It reminds you that you’re hungry, and that food is glorious. Cured meats, fresh and aged cheeses, grilled and marinated vegetables, pickles, cooked greens, salads of tomatoes and arugula, olives…a single dish or many may appear on the antipasto table. The preparations are typically simple, and the flavors vibrant and enticing.

Antipasti with Bread

For our first meal at Tenuta SantArcangelo, our host Gerardo went all out with the antipasti offerings. The table looked like a promotional display for all the products of Southern Italy…a plate of thinly sliced prosciutto and salumi, fresh mozzarella and ciocavallo cheese…an onion fritatta…a basket of bruschetta, and a bowl of fresh diced tomatoes. Then, because Gerardo knew that I am very fond of vegetables, he brought in a plate if pickled wild asparagus, a saute of sweet peppers with onion, and another dish of lambasconi (a slightly bitter bulb of wild hyacinth) with hot pepper and pancetta. Potatoes with aglio, olio, e pepperoncino (garlic, olive oil, and hot pepper) and broccoli given the same treatment followed shortly. This was not the whole meal, but you can see how it easily could be.

Bruschetta is simply grilled bread– a good place to start. You need a loaf of rustic Italian bread, a crusty baguette, or ciabatta and extra virgin olive oil. Cut the bread into slices 1/2-inch thick, brush them with oil, and toast on an outdoor or stovetop grill on both sides. Drizzle with more garlic-infused oil, or use your bruschetta to hold one of the following toppings.

Tomato Salad*Tomato salad: We had this tomato salad with bread every morning at Serra Gambetta. To make it, dice perfectly ripe tomatoes, sprinkle them with coarse salt and a bit of dried oregano, and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Mix gently.

Variations: add finely chopped garlic, replace the oregano with torn fresh basil leaves, or toss the tomatoes with chopped arugula and a splash of balsamic vinegar.

*Roasted red pepper spread: mix roasted red peppers (1 cup chopped) with sun-dried or oven-dried tomatoes (1/2 cup chopped), caramelized onion (1/2 cup), roasted garlic, 1/4 tsp crushed fennel seed, a little salt and some hot chile flakes. Chop coarsely in a food processor or by hand and stir in 2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil.

*Pepperonata with Capers and Olives: Heat 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil in a large skillet with 1/2 cup chopped onion over medium heat. Cook 3 or 4 minutes until the onion softens. Raise the heat a bit and stir in 3 or 4 (about 1 lb.) diced sweet red peppers. Sauté, stirring often, 8 to 10 minutes, until the peppers are tender. Stir in 2 tsp minced garlic, 1 Tbs rinsed capers, and 1/4 cup coarsely chopped olives, cook 1 minute. Stir in 2 or 3 Tbs chopped parsley. Remove from the heat and season with red wine vinegar, salt and black pepper to taste.

Antipasti Table VariationsVariations: Sauté sliced mushrooms with the peppers. Add 1 or 2 chopped anchovy fillets when you add the garlic.

*Green Olive-Artichoke Tapenade: Mix together 12 chopped green olives, 4-6 chopped marinated artichoke hearts, 3-4 chopped oven-dried (or sun-dried in oil) tomatoes, 1 Tbs. capers, 1 finely chopped garlic clove, 4 Tbs. chopped fresh parsley leaves, and 1 Tbs chopped fresh mint. Stir in 2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil.

*Herbed Cheese: Mix 1 cup fresh ricotta or goat cheese with 1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme leaves, 1 or 2 Tsp. chopped fresh mint, 1 tsp. lemon zest, and freshly ground black pepper.

*White Bean Puree: Heat 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil with 1/2 cup chopped onion. Cook over medium low heat until the onion is soft. Add 1 tbs. chopped garlic and 1/4 tsp. red chile flakes and stir 1 minute. Add 1 1/2 to 2 cups cooked white beans. Stir to coat the beans well and cook over low heat 5 to 10 minutes to let the beans absorb the flavors. Season with salt to taste. Put the beans and 1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley in a food processor and process to a coarse puree.

*Sauté of Greens: Steam or parboil a bunch of chicory, chard, kale, broccoli rabe, or mustard greens until tender (3 to 5 minutes). Heat chopped garlic in extra virgin olive oil 1-2 minutes. Stir in the chopped greens to coat with oil and continue to cook over low heat until tender. Beat 2 eggs with 2 Tbs grated Parmesan. Stir the egg mixture into the greens; cook just until the eggs are set. Or leave the egg out–it’s good that way, too.

*Grilled Eggplant, Zucchini, and Peppers: Heat a grill to medium-high heat, or use a stovetop grill pan or broiler. Slice the eggplant 1/2-inch thick. Slice the zucchini lengthwise 1/4-inch thick. Brush both sides with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Grill the sliced vegetables 3-4 minutes per side, until they have dark grill marks and are tender. Grill the whole peppers (or roast them over the flame of a gas burner), rotating them so that their skin is blistered and charred all over. Put them in a bowl and cover with a dishtowel to cool, 10-15 minutes. Peel, seed and slice them into narrow strips. Arrange the vegetables on a platter. Drizzle them with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle with salt and a few drops red wine vinegar. Garnish with chopped flat-leaf parsley or mint. Roast the vegetables in a hot oven if you don’t want to grill.

*Marinated Olives: Mix green and black olives with enough extra virgin olive oil to coat them well. Sprinkle with orange zest, crushed fennel seed, red chile flakes (or minced fresh hot chile), and minced garlic. Toss and marinate several hours before serving.