Thursday, September 4, 2008

Ratatouille Nicoise & Minestrone Soup

We are at the height of the growing and gardening season, so let’s talk about what to do with all those vegetables that are locally available right now. I have a couple of recipes here that combine a large number of those vegetables and make for some mighty fine eating, at a very modest cost. Given today’s high prices for gas and food, these can provide a modicum of relief for the home cook. In fact the two recipes that follow are part of what in Italy are known as cucina povera, literally “poor kitchen,” which generally describes a recipe arising from the days of intense poverty which existed until recently across much of the Italian peninsula.

The first is actually a French dish known as ratatouille nicoise, a vegetable stew which originated in Nice, France, whose cousin is the Italian caponata, a combination of eggplant, onions and olives usually served as an appetizer. Ratatouille, either a main dish or a side dish, is a combination of eggplants, zucchini (traditionally, but one can also include yellow squash), onions, tomatoes and sweet peppers, either red, orange, or green, or a combination of all three, along with olive oil, garlic and herbs. The name is derived from the French words ratouiller and tatouiller, two words derived from the verb touiller, meaning to” stir up.” There is some debate as to whether one cooks all the vegetables together or each vegetable separately, combining them afterwards to fuse their flavors. I personally like to cook them separately so I can control the cooking of each ingredient, otherwise you can end up with a thick stew where the vegetables become indistinguishable from each other. In the recipe below, I actually choose to grill most of the vegetables before combining, so this is a non-standard version, but very tasty. Ratatouille can be as a stand-alone dish with salad and bread, but it is traditionally served with roasts, chicken or other meats.

Grilled Ratatouille

2 ea. Eggplants, small or the thin Japanese eggplants, sliced ¼” thick
2 ea. Zucchini, sliced ¼” thick on the bias
2 ea. Yellow summer squash, sliced ¼” thick on the bias
2 ea. Red peppers
2 ea. Yellow, orange or green peppers
2 ea. Sweet onions, sliced ¼” thick
4 ea. Garlic cloves, minced
2 lb. Vine ripened tomatoes, cubed
¼ cup + 2 tbl Olive oil
Salt & pepper
2 tbl. Fresh basil, chiffonade
2 tbl. Fresh flat leaf Italian parsley, minced

Salt the eggplant and allow it to exude its liquid for 30 minutes while you light the grill and allow it to preheat. Wipe off the salt and droplets of liquid from the eggplants and toss with the rest of the vegetables in a large bowl with the ¼ cup olive oil, salt and pepper to taste. Grill each vegetable until marked and cooked through, but not mushy. The peppers should be grilled until the skin is black, then placed in a plastic bag to steam for 10 minutes. This will allow you to peel the skin off (don’t rinse under running water as you’ll wash away some of their sweet flavor). Remove the peppers’ seeds and cut into pieces.

In a skillet, place 1 tsp. of olive oil and sauté the minced garlic for a minute or so. Cut the grilled vegetables into bite-sized chunks and combine them in a large sauté pan with the remaining olive oil and cooked garlic. Cook about 5 minutes to combine the flavors, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and dress with the basil and parsley. Serve warm, at room temperature or even cold. It always tastes better the next day.

Minestrone is an Italian vegetable soup usually containing pasta, rice, or potatoes. There is no standard recipe as it is made year round with the vegetables that are in season at the time of it’s making. It may contain small quantities of meat, like pancetta or bacon, or not. It may be made with meat stock, vegetable broth or water. It can have green vegetables like string beans, peas or broccoli, leafy vegetables like spinach, chard, cabbage or kale, summer or winter squash or pumpkin, onions, garlic, leeks, tomatoes, corn or whatever you have on hand. I usually include some beans, either fresh cranberry beans, barley or dried cannellini, ceci or borlotti (Great Northern, chickpeas or kidney beans). An Italian trick is to include a piece of the rind from a wheel of Parmigianno-Reggiano cheese. A delicious addition is to add some pesto, a combination of basil, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, as they do in Genoa and in the French soup known as Soupe au Pistou.

Some general rules on making a Minestrone are that soups that simmer for a relatively longer time tend to be creamier as the starches in the beans or barley are released more than if added just as they are cooked through. The rice or pasta should be added toward the end of the cooking, or they will suck up all the liquid and make the soup overly thick. Some nice ways to finish the soup is to drizzle each serving with some good extra-virgin olive oil, add a grating of Parmiagianno-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese to each bowl, grate fresh black pepper over the soup, add a tablespoon or two of red wine to each bowl or some garlic croutons or toasted bruschetta brushed with olive oil.

I’m not going to include a specific recipe, but will outline the general technique and allow you to include whatever is available in your pantry.

If using meat, and it’s always pork, sauté it, be it salt pork, bacon, pancetta, or guancile (cured pork jowl) in the soup pot. When the pork has rendered it’s fat and it has crisped up, remove it to a paper towel to drain. Add your onions or leeks, cut up into dice, chopped celery, carrots and/or garlic and sauté about 5 to 10 minutes until translucent. Add your diced pumpkin, winter squash, potato or turnips along with a pig’s foot, if you have one. The pork trotter has a lot of gelatin in it and will give the broth more body than if not used. Pour in your liquid, be it stock or water, to generously cover the vegetables and add our cheese rind, if using. Cook slowly until the vegetables are soft. Add any green beans, peas, chard, spinach, cabbage, or corn and cook slowly about 5 to 10 minutes. Add any rice or pasta and cook until done, 10 to 15 minutes more. If adding pesto, stir it in at the end or send the soup to table with a cruet of extra-virgin olive oil, the grated Parmesan cheese, black pepper grinder and/or croutons or bruschetta. Garnish with the pork bits.

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