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It’s high season for peas in my Greenmarket, and I’ve been buying them as fast as I can.

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I should mention that for me “peas” means shelling peas, or English peas: My household has no interest in sugar snaps. Standing together at the kitchen counter shelling peas is a pleasant summer tradition for Beloved Spouse and me.

I used to buy peas in quantity, blanch them and freeze them for year-long use, but they always came out tasting like commercially frozen peas, not the tender-crisp sweet vegetable that truly fresh ones are. Now I buy only enough for one or two days’ dinners at a time, so they can be eaten quickly, before the sugars turn to starch.

There’s nothing wrong with plain boiled peas, but when I feel a little more ambitious I turn to Julia Child’s pea recipes in volume 1 of Mastering. The first three are simple enough, and each is designed for peas of a certain quality: very young, sweet, and tender; large but still tender and fresh; and large, mature, end-of-season. The fourth recipe, Petits Pois Frais à la Française, is far more elaborate. Julia calls it “the glory of pea cookery.”

Essentially it’s peas braised with lettuce and onions, in a very particular way. I’ve never gone through the entire procedure, but this season I successfully adapted the recipe for faster, easy preparation. Here are the components for two portions, using one cup of shelled peas:

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The first simplification was the lettuce. Julia calls for quartered heads of Boston lettuce, wound around with string to keep them in shape during the cooking. As you see, I simply shredded leaves of fresh Greenmarket leaf lettuces.

Second was the onions. Julia wants one-inch green onion bulbs or small white onions parboiled for five minutes. I had a larger onion – so fresh it didn’t need peeling – so I quartered it and gave it the parboiling.

The cooking began in Julia’s manner. I brought butter, a little water, sugar, salt, and pepper to a boil in a pot, put in the peas, and stirred them around. Then, instead of burying a bunch of fresh parsley stems tied together with string in the middle of the peas, as she says, I sprinkled on chopped parsley. Instead of arranging lettuce quarters over the peas and basting them with the liquid, I just strewed on the chopped lettuce and followed with the onion quarters (already falling apart, but no matter).
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Next came my major divergence. This is what I didn’t do:

So that the cooking steam will condense and fall back onto the peas, invert a lid over the saucepan and fill it with cold water or ice cubes; or use a soup plate. Bring the peas to the boil and boil slowly for 20 to 30 minutes or until tender. Several times during the period, remove the cover and toss the peas and vegetables to insure even cooking. As the water warms and evaporates in the cover or soup plate, refill with ice cubes or cold water.

I couldn’t see why a snug-fitting normal lid wouldn’t circulate steam as well as that Rube Goldberg contraption, so I just put a low flame under the pot, covered it tightly, and simmered for 20 minutes, checking and stirring once or twice. It worked perfectly well. When the peas were done, most of the liquid was gone, but that’s what the recipe said would happen anyway. So why take all that trouble? I briefly raised the heat to boil down what remained, and transferred everything to a serving dish – skipping an indicated final dose of softened butter. That would’ve been gilding the lily.

 

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The dish isn’t glamorous, but it is absolutely delicious. The flavors blend in a rich harmony. For me this is indeed the glory of pea cookery – and done in the easiest possible way.

After a dinner or two more of peas like this, and while their short season lasts, I may cross over to Italy and turn to another delicious pea dish: risi e bisi. (Background cheers from Beloved Spouse.)

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Although we’re well into spring, I’ve not seen many good seasonal vegetables yet. Stores here all have asparagus, peas, radishes, spinach – but they’re either from far-away agribusiness outfits, hence not really fresh, or outrageously overpriced. After a dispirited walk through the produce area at a local grocery recently, I came home with an acorn squash.

I settled for that because of a recipe called Zucca in Agrodolce in Fabrizia Lanza’s Coming Home to Sicily that I’d been meaning to try all winter but hadn’t gotten around to. Italy’s zucca is a very big pumpkin-like squash, which we rarely see here, but most winter squashes lend themselves to the same kinds of treatment, and I just needed a dinner vegetable for two. Acorn is not one of my preferred varieties, but it was the only small squash on offer.

I halved my raw squash and scraped out the seeds, and cut one half of it into neat ⅓-inch slices. That looked like enough vegetable for the two of us, so I put away the other half for another time. The recipe actually said to peel the squash first and then slice it, but the shape of an acorn squash makes that nearly impossible.
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Once I peeled the slices I was to lay them on an ungreased grill, cook them until grill marks appeared on each side, transfer them to a baking dish, and keep them warm. That was all the cooking they were to get. However, by the time my squash slices were over-blackening they still were hard – nowhere near cooked. They’d shrunken up and looked quite ugly, too. Not a promising beginning, but I soldiered on.

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I did put them in the baking dish, but then covered it and set it in a 350° oven to cook some more while I went on with the recipe, hoping the squash slices would soften.

Next was to thinly slice about a third of a big red onion, soften it in generous olive oil, and add salt and pepper. Finally came the agrodolce: I stirred half a teaspoon of sugar and four teaspoons of red wine vinegar into the onions and cooked for about five minutes, until the vinegar had slightly reduced and the sugar slightly caramelized. My own wine vinegar is so strong I had cautiously thinned it a bit with water.

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I took the finally-fully-cooked squash out of the oven, spooned the onion sauce over it, covered the dish again, and let it sit for 10 minutes before serving so the agrodolce flavors would permeate the squash.
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Somewhat to our surprise, it was delicious! The squash itself was only moderately interesting in flavor, but the onions and the agrodolce did wonders for it. I think using a red onion, rather than my usual big Spanish onion, was an important contributor to the final intriguing flavor of the mélange. I’ve tried making things in agrodolce occasionally in the past, but never with such excellent results. We regretted not having cooked the whole acorn squash.

In fact, I did a reprise of the dish with the other half of the squash a few days later, with one major alteration. Instead of grilling the slices, I just baked them on a nonstick pan at 400° until they were fully cooked. That worked just fine.
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If I’d had a wood fire to grill the squash on, I think it would have been more flavorful, but a dry gas grill seems not to do much more than any other dry cooking does. Still, when summer vegetables come in, I’m going to try the onion-and-agrodolce condiment on grilled eggplants, peppers, and zucchini. I can hardly wait!

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I’m very fond of Indian food, but I don’t cook it often. The recipes are usually quite complex, and the flavors seem to want to be matched with others of their kind. Thus, making a full Indian meal is a lengthy, fairly hectic procedure, with many steps to be taken at almost the same time.

In an attempt to break out of that rut, I decided, the other day, to put just one Indian dish on an otherwise-familiar American-style dinner plate: a vegetable to accompany a veal chop. Madhur Jaffrey’s Vegetarian India gave me a trove of recipes to choose from, including one that’s the simplest Indian dish I’ve ever seen: Aloo Gobi, or stir-fried cauliflower with potatoes. Granted, it calls for 10 ingredients, but there are really only a few cooking steps. It seemed ideal.

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For my half recipe, I first had to boil a potato. (Jaffrey says day-old leftovers do fine in the dish, but I didn’t have any.) When it had cooled, I cut it into ¾ inch dice. And I cut up half a small head of cauliflower to make a heaping two cups’ worth of florets. Then I stirred up a fragrant spice mixture: ground cumin, coriander, and turmeric; grated fresh ginger root. red chili powder, salt, and water. Those were all the ingredients.

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I heated my ancient, disreputable looking (but well-seasoned) wok on a stove burner, quickly sizzled some whole cumin seeds in oil, and added the cauliflower and potatoes.

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These were to be stir-fried for 10 minutes “or until the vegetables are well browned in spots.” Mine took almost twice that long to brown even minimally. I poured on the spice mixture, kept stir-frying for 1 minute, added some more water, and continued cooking gently. Per the recipe, the vegetables should have absorbed all their liquid and been tender in 2 to 5 minutes. Mine were not. Again, they took about twice that long, and the potato was mushy before the cauliflower was soft. Maybe it was supposed to be that way, since the potato had been fully cooked to begin with?

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Meanwhile I’d also been cooking the veal chops, using a technique that Tom Colicchio, in Think Like a Chef, calls pan-roasting. I browned them slowly in a little butter for 3 minutes on each side, cooked for 5 more minutes on each side; dropped in a big lump of butter and cooked for a final 10 minutes, turning and basting the chops with the butter. Very restaurantish, all that butter!

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The chops then had to sit off the heat at the back of the stove for 10 minutes, to draw their juices back in. That rest period made it easier to finish the vegetables and have them ready to serve when the chops were.

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Then came the taste test: inspired combination or culture clash? More like the latter, I’m sorry to say. The aloo gobi and the chop shared a plate amicably enough, and both were good of their kind, but on the palate they didn’t do anything for each other. The veal wasn’t enhanced by the spiciness of the vegetables, and the aloo gobi hardly seemed to recognize the flavor of the meat. Both would have been more pleasing with accompaniments in their own style. (Jaffrey suggests rice, a dal, and a raita alongside aloo gobi.) Beloved Spouse thinks the vegetables would have worked better with a moist braised meat – say, lamb or goat.

Well, it was a learning experience for me – to save Indian cooking for days when I have a lot of time to spend in the kitchen, and perhaps when I have a few extra helping hands. However, there’s one potential benefit to the experiment: Since we didn’t finish all the aloo gobi, I’m saving the rest of it to try as a samosa filling.

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The calendar says it’s spring, but the weather hasn’t been fully cooperative. What do you do on an unseasonably raw, dark, damp day? Easy: Have friends over for a bollito misto dinner.

In English, a “mixed boil” doesn’t sound overly attractive, but this northern Italian meat extravaganza is truly marvelous. I remember a long-ago winter day in Ferrara when Beloved Spouse and I lurched out of the icy blasts and into the warmth of a restaurant where all the lunchtime patrons were comforting themselves with bollito misto, served from a steaming silver cart that a waiter rolled around to each table. That was our first taste of this now-indispensable bad-weather balm.

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For this occasion, I embellished the bollito with a multi-course menu of dishes from my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. We started with an antipasto of grilled radicchio with smoked mozzarella.

Several red-leaved members of the chicory family are known as radicchio. This dish wants the long, slender Treviso variety. The radicchio heads are halved and pan-grilled with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper; then placed in a baking pan, topped with smoked scamorza or mozzarella (scamorza is better, if you can find it), and baked until the cheese melts. The combination of smoky-lush cheese and savory-bitter radicchio makes a bracing wake-up call to the appetite.

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Next came a first course of passatelli in brodo.

Long, gentle boiling of several kinds of meat – on this day eye of chuck, chicken thighs, and veal tongue – produces a wonderfully rich broth. A bowl of it is purely ambrosial with passatelli. To make these tiny shreds of dumpling, you mix breadcrumbs, grated parmigiano, eggs, parsley, salt, pepper, and nutmeg into a soft paste. Dip out a quantity of broth into a separate pot; bring it to a boil; set a food mill over the pot; and mill the passatelli mixture directly into it. Cook two minutes, let rest two minutes, and serve. This is the soul’s plasma, so be prepared to offer seconds.

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Finally, the main event of the evening: the meats and their condiments.

In addition to the beef, chicken, and tongue, I separately cooked a large, unctuous cotechino sausage. Alongside we had potatoes mashed with parmigiano; salsa rossa (a thick, nubbly sauce that I make from roasted sweet peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and red wine vinegar), and mostarda di Cremona – fruits preserved in a strong mustard syrup (jars of which I bring back from every trip to Italy). All in all, they made richly satisfying platefuls, with the sweet/sharp flavors of the two condiments playing beautifully off the lushness of the meats.

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And to finish the meal, a pizza dolce, or ricotta torte.

The pastry for this looking-toward-Easter dessert is a tender pasta frolla. The ricotta filling is flavored with confectioners’ sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, chopped almonds, and chopped candied citron and orange peel. For this evening’s torte I diverged a bit from my published recipe: I used very fresh sheep’s milk ricotta; orange peel alone, and a combination of almonds, walnuts, and hazelnuts. Came out just fine!

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No, not tennis. Last week I was in Trinidad on a birding trip, enjoying warm weather, lush tropical scenery, over 170 species of gorgeous birds . . . and one terrific culinary specialty: Doubles.

Trinidad’s favorite street food, doubles are gloriously sloppy “sandwiches” made with bara, a kind of fried bread, and channa, curried chickpeas. Roadside stands serve doubles on a sheet of greaseproof paper, to be eaten in the hand, standing up. Here’s part of our group waiting to be served (but also keeping an eye out for any passing birds).
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doubles-stand

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The choices on offer were mild, medium, or hot. I had the medium, and Beloved Spouse of course had the hot. Each doubles (singular and plural both end in “s”) cost $4 Trinidadian, which is about 65ȼ US.
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trini-doubles

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They were amazingly good! The light, puffy bread, the tender, succulent chickpeas, the savory curry spicing, and the fiery hot sauce – together all just sang and danced on the palate. I immediately knew I’d have to try making doubles for myself.

And so I did. We got home from the trip on Thursday evening. Friday morning I studied doubles recipes on the Internet and selected different parts of them to make a version that I thought would work best. That afternoon I took a walk to Kalustyan’s, my local source of nearly every exotic foodstuff under the sun, and acquired a few essentials that my pantry lacked:
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3-ingredients

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Trinidad-style curry powder, which has no hot chiles, is milder than its counterparts in other geographic regions but very aromatic from ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, and allspice, in addition to the usual turmeric, coriander, and cumin. The region’s hot sauce is a real killer, made with the devastatingly hot Scotch bonnet peppers, plus vinegar, mustard, and papayas. The yellow pea flour is not in any of the doubles recipes I found online, but a cookbook I’d looked at in Trinidad and a few people I’d talked to there had told me it’s important for doubles.

So Saturday morning I started making the bara for a lunch of doubles. Not knowing if the pea flour would need different treatment, I cautiously used it only half and half with all-purpose flour. Additional dry seasonings were turmeric, cumin, salt, and black pepper.
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bara-flour-mixture

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When those were thoroughly mixed together, I stirred in yeast, warm water, and a little sugar to make a fairly soft dough, kneaded it, and set it aside to rise.
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bara-dough

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While the dough was rising I prepared the channa. That involved softening sliced onions and minced garlic in oil; adding the curry powder, water, chickpeas (canned and rinsed), cumin, salt, and black pepper; and simmering until the chickpeas were tender, which took about half an hour.
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channa

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Finally came the tricky part: shaping and frying the bara. Here I’m afraid I didn’t do too well. The instruction was to take walnut-sized lumps of dough and flatten them out to four- or five-inch rounds. Stretching them as thin as I could without their ripping apart, I still needed twice as much dough to achieve that size.
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forming-bara-2

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One internet recipe warned that if the rounds weren’t excruciatingly thin, flat, and oily, they wouldn’t come out with the right texture. And, alas, mine didn’t. I might have had the oil too hot, too, because though fried for only eight seconds on a side, they darkened in a way that the ones in Trinidad never did; and to the extent they puffed at all, it was in the middle, not around the sides.
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bara-frying

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The good news is that, while my doubles looked nothing like the ones at that roadside stand, they tasted quite good anyway. The bara were darker, denser, and heavier, perhaps from the pea flour. And too much of the channa’s liquid had cooked off. But a few dashes of the hot sauce added the needed moisture and completed a very lively overall flavor profile.
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my-doubles

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That’s nowhere near the true Trini dish, I fear (especially since it’s on a plate, not a piece of paper), but it was an interesting culinary experiment for me. I may well do it again, trying a few changes to achieve lighter, puffier bara.

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Beloved Spouse was in Italy this past week for a wine writers’ event, so I was making dinners for one. For these occasions I tend to feed myself things that I like much better than he does – which helps keep both sides of the family happy.

This time I had a new recipe that would be perfect for such a meal: Lentil Salad fabrizia-lanzawith Mint and Orange Zest, from Fabrizia Lanza’s Coming Home to Sicily, which I remembered as a dish my friend Hope served at a dinner some months ago, and which I liked very much. However, since Beloved Spouse regards most salads with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, I hadn’t yet found an opportunity to make it at home. But now, for myself alone, I had my double–0 designation!

For six servings, the recipe calls for two cups of green – but not Le Puy – lentils. I had to do some online research to be certain of the kind I needed here. That was a variety known as Laired green lentils – which, as you can see here, are not very green at all.

package

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But they were the right kind, and apparently their color can vary quite a bit. For the half recipe I intended to make, I picked over one cup’s worth of them.
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laired-lentils

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I rinsed them, put them in a pot with two cups of water, and simmered them covered until they were tender. When they had cooled, I found they had quadrupled in volume, yielding far more than my lone self wanted to deal with. So I put half of the half recipe’s worth of lentils in the refrigerator for another use and dressed the rest with a quarter of the recipe’s condiment quantities.

The first one of those was fresh mint. For the whole recipe, that was to be the leaves from “a large bunch” of the herb. I had no idea what a Sicilian cook would consider a large bunch. I do wish recipe writers would give measured amounts of their ingredients! I bought the 25-gram package that was what my local market offered.

mint

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I chopped up about 3 tablespoons of leaves and mixed them into the 2 cups of lentils. The quantity looked about right in comparison to the book’s photo of the dish. (I should know by now not to trust food photography!) I also added a teaspoon of grated orange zest, ½ teaspoon of dried oregano, 1½ teaspoons of olive oil, 1½ teaspoons of lemon juice, and a generous sprinkling of sea salt.
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lentil-salad

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I’d dressed the salad in mid-afternoon, so the flavors would have time to blend, leaving it at room temperature. Come dinnertime, I served myself a meal that, while it looked appealing to me, would have brought no cheer to the man who normally sits across from me at the dinner table: broiled chicken thighs, plain broccoli rape (neither of which he likes much), and the lentil salad.
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dinner-plate

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Quickly I became glad he wasn’t sitting across from me that evening, because the salad was a big disappointment. The mint presence was much too strong, and I couldn’t detect the orange peel and oregano at all. I tried fishing out the visible bits of leaf, but the flavor had permeated the lentils. I don’t know what kind of mint this was; the package label didn’t say. But it was extremely sweet and pungent, as if the lentils had been dressed with melted peppermint candies.

Puzzled by why my dish turned so much less pleasing than Hope’s, I asked her what kind of mint she’d used. Lo and behold, her salad had not been from Lanza’s recipe! Yes, we’d discussed the book that evening, but her lentil salad came from Made in Spain by José Andrés. At the time I hadn’t asked what recipe she’d used, so when I much later found the one in Lanza’s book, I just made the assumption.

Subsequently, I looked up the Andrés recipe on the Web. Aside from the lentils themselves, there isn’t a single ingredient in common between the two recipes. The Spanish one contains shallots, chives, garlic, bay leaves, green and red peppers, and sherry vinegar – all things I like a lot more than I like mint. I may have found my use for those other two cups of cooked lentils.

So we live and learn. Or not.

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Ratatouille

I can’t let a summer go by without making ratatouille at least once. Actually, I’d probably make it several times, but Beloved Spouse prefers the Italian style of vegetable mélange – perhaps because he usually ends up slicing, chopping, and mincing all the components. I like the Italian type too, but there’s a ratatouille recipe I love to make: a very complex one from the Cooking of Provincial France volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series.

VergeThis time I let BS off the hook, because I had found a different version of ratatouille that I wanted to try, and I was prepared to do all the knife work for it on a free afternoon while he watched a pre-season football game. The recipe is from Cuisine of the South of France, by Roger Vergé, the legendary chef of the Michelin three-star Moulin de Mougins restaurant in Provence.  So I approached this experience with high expectations, while BS readied himself for another season of dashed hopes.

Vergé calls it La ratatouille niçoise à ma façon and says that while the usual dish of that name “creates itself during a long slow cooking, taking about 2 to 3 hours,” his gives you “the advantage of keeping the freshness and texture of the individual vegetables.” That sounded attractive, even though my Time-Life book’s recipe (by the redoubtable M.F.K. Fisher) doesn’t cook for anything like that much time. So I gathered a half recipe’s worth of Vergé’s ingredients and set to work.
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ingredients

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Vergé is particular about the type of vegetables to use and the way to handle them. Peeling, seeding, and dicing the tomatoes were no problem, nor slicing up the green pepper and onion. Peeling stripes into the zucchini was attractive, and I duly cut them lengthwise and crosswise as indicated. Cutting up the eggplants – he specifies that long, slender type – was a bit of a poser, because he wants them in pieces “the size of your thumb.” For the size my eggplants were, the pieces would have had to be either fatter and flatter than my thumb or much skinnier than it. I went with fat and flat.

cut up ingredients

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First I cooked the tomatoes in olive oil in a very hot skillet for just 2 minutes and moved them to a plate. In another pan I softened the onions and peppers together in oil for 15 minutes and added them to the tomatoes’ plate. In yet another pan, with high heat, I was to brown the eggplant pieces in oil and drain them in a colander set over a bowl to catch the oil they’d give off. That was a problem.

eggplant

Flat on one side and round on the other, my eggplant pieces refused to brown evenly. Also, they absorbed all the oil, needed more, and gave none back. Same shape and same situation with the zucchini, last to be sautéed.

That was all the cooking any of the vegetables got. At dinner time I mixed everything together in a casserole, merely heated it through, and stirred in minced garlic and chopped basil leaves.

ratatouille 2

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It wasn’t bad, this ratatouille. Those vegetables always blend well together – though parts of the zucchini pieces had a faint flavor of char from my difficulty in browning them evenly. But the vegetables didn’t taste any fresher than they do in my preferred recipe. In fact, the flavors were a little muddled. And there wasn’t nearly as much tomato presence as I like.

The Time-Life ratatouille recipe uses twice the amount of tomato, cuts it in big strips, lays them on paper towels to absorb some of their liquid, and doesn’t cook them separately at all. Also, it carefully layers the individual vegetables in their casserole and simmers it covered for 30 minutes. That way, the vegetables exude a lot of liquid, but you keep drawing it off with a bulb baster and, at the end, boil it down to a luscious glaze that you pour over the ratatouille – which makes a dish that’s much prettier on the plate and far more interesting to eat.

So, though I wouldn’t turn up my nose at another dish of Vergé’s ratatouille if I encountered one somewhere, in my own kitchen I’ll stick with the version I love best.

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