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Posts Tagged ‘eggplant’

Last week Tom and I were away on a birding trip to Grand Manan Island. The birds were great, the food disappointing: The inn where our group took all its meals offered no local seafood and no seasonal produce. Once back home, I immediately stocked up on eggplant, peppers, onions, new potatoes, tomatoes, and zucchini at my greenmarket.
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At last, vegetables! Though I’d intended to start by making a big, luscious, layered ratatouille, I didn’t feel up to so labor-intensive a job that day.

Instead I turned to a much simpler mixed vegetable recipe in Ed Giobbi’s modest little 1971 book Italian Family Cooking. My copy – a first edition, first printing – cost me $8.95 when it first came out, and I’ve now seen it listed online for $60. Makes me feel very canny, that does.

The vegetables for Giobbi’s Verdura Mista #2 do require a fair amount of preparation, for which Tom (my bespoke knife man) and I worked together, me washing and peeling, he slicing and chopping. Giobbi is very relaxed about instructions, not saying how thick to slice things or how small to chop them. He encourages readers to cook with a free hand.

Here are our finished ingredients: one small cubed eggplant, two sliced zucchini, two sliced green peppers, three cups of seeded and chopped tomatoes, and the equivalents of two medium potatoes and two medium onions.
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This was a quantity intended to serve 6 to 8, but, as I said, we were starved for vegetables.

The cooking, from that point, was almost effortless. First, in a very large pot, I warmed four tablespoons of olive oil and let the eggplant and zucchini briefly make its acquaintance. They quickly absorbed it all.
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The next instruction was “Add rest of ingredients.” Which, in addition to the remaining vegetables, were salt, pepper, and several leaves of basil (defrosted, in my case).
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All I had to do then was partially cover the pot and stir everything around occasionally until the potatoes were tender. At first, the vegetables exuded a great deal of liquid, which I thought would have to be boiled down at the end, but after 30 minutes and a few small adjustments to the heat and the pot covering, everything was ready, with just a modicum of liquid remaining.
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Our dinner that evening was a thick, rare lamb chop apiece and great scoops of the vegetables, with chunks of crusty baguette to soak up the juices. The mixture had all the good flavors of ratatouille but with more bright acidity and less of the weight that initial, separate sautéeing of each vegetable would have provided. It was pure ambrosia! Just to complete the summer feel, we drank a simple Beaujolais, which loved the company we put it in.
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We managed to get through more than half the big bowlful of vegetables that evening. The rest were saved to fill individual vegetable tartlets, which I’ve frozen for future first courses. A few months from now, those summery flavors will help appease our mid-winter doldrums.

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Planning for a casual dinner party last week, I turned to the summer section of TSOTIK (rhymes with exotic), our family name for Tom’s and my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. There I found recipes for several perfect-for-hot-weather dishes that I hadn’t made in a long time, so I built the evening’s menu around them.

 

Insalata Caprese – Zucchini a Scapece

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Insalata caprese
hardly needs a recipe at all: just pair the best available mozzarella with the best available tomatoes, and offer salt, pepper, and olive oil for diners to dress their own portions. The great white puffball you see above is a very fresh 1½-pound buffalo milk mozzarella, and the red cartwheels around it are local heirloom tomatoes. The combination is always wonderful.

Zucchini a scapece is a classic Neapolitan antipasto that I’ve written about before. For it I lightly floured rounds of zucchini, fried them in olive oil, and marinated them overnight in a simmered mixture of vinegar, water, garlic, and chopped mint leaves. The dish is best when made, as here, with the costata romanesco variety of zucchini, the prince of the summer squash family.

 

Fettuccine all’Abruzzese

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If you think this bowl of pasta looks as if there’s barely any sauce on it, you’re right. There isn’t much. But this simple peasant dish always surprises people by how unexpectedly delicious it is. The sauce is just a sauté of finely chopped pancetta and onion; chopped basil and parsley, salt, and pepper; with a little broth stirred in and nearly evaporated. The fettuccine – homemade, and rolled very thin: that’s essential – are tossed first with grated pecorino cheese and then with the sauce. The pasta readily absorbs the sauce, and the diners just as readily absorb the pasta.

 

Abbacchio in Umido – Ciambotta

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For the book I translated this meat recipe as “Summertime Lamb Stew” because, in Italian, in umido means stew, but there are no substantial vegetables in it, as there are in most cold-weather stews. It’s simply chunks of boneless lamb shoulder braised in tomato sauce, with seasonings of chopped pancetta, onion, carrot, celery, parsley, and marjoram. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get really young lamb these days, so the dish can take much longer to cook than the recipe suggests. Not a problem, though: just start early – even a day in advance – simmer however long it takes until the lamb is tender, and reheat it when needed. This is a reliable dish: It’ll be fine.

To accompany the vegetable-less lamb stew, I made a big sauté of summer vegetables from the greenmarket: eggplant, celery, onions, potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, and zucchini. We also had plenty of crusty bread available to soak up the delicious juices they generated, along with the equally good sauce from the lamb.

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The dinner wasn’t confined to these three courses. We also had a few hors d’oeuvres before coming to table, a cheese platter after the lamb, and a simple dessert of homemade lemon ice with cookies. Altogether, a very relaxed and comfortable summer repast. And Tom had picked out five wines from his collection to match with the food. He has written about those wines on his own blog.

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My recent week in Venice sent me home with a major fruit and vegetable deficit. The many other culinary temptations there diverted me from my normal interest in fresh produce. Happily, the cure is at hand in my Greenmarket, where it seems that summer is finally on the way. I’ve been regaling myself with local strawberries, blueberries, English peas, flat green beans, spring onions, new potatoes, young zucchini, and even heirloom tomatoes (greenhouse-grown).

A good dish for the produce-hungry is a savory vegetable tart. It’s easy to make with any number of ingredient combinations. This week I made one using Greenmarket zucchini, tomatoes, and onions (the onions already roasted from the previous night’s dinner), supplemented with eggplant from my favorite sidewalk vegetable stand.

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For the tart shell I used pâte brisée, which I often keep on hand in the freezer. After rolling it out, I painted the bottom with Dijon mustard – grainy mustard this time, for a change from smooth.
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I sliced and sauteed one of the eggplants and two of the zucchini.
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While they cooled a little, I roughly chopped the onions and sliced and seeded the larger tomato.
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I spread those vegetables in the uncooked pastry shell, sprinkling each layer with salt, pepper, and herbes de Provence.
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The tart baked for 30 minutes in a 375º oven. (As you may notice below, at the last minute I’d decided to sprinkle a little grated parmigiano over it too.)
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You basically can’t go wrong with a tart like this. Use any nonsweet pastry dough. Add another lightly cooked vegetable – peppers are particularly good. Sprinkle on oregano, thyme, or parsley instead of provençal herbs. Beat an egg with a little tomato puree and pour that around the vegetables. Top the tart with a veil of grated Swiss cheese. Just about anything goes.
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Normally, I like wedges of the tart as a lunch dish or a dinner’s first course. This time, what with our Venice-induced vegetable hunger, it was our dinner’s main course. With no trouble at all, we ate the whole thing – and are looking forward to a summer of more.

Oh yes, lest I forget: The grainy mustard was a bit too sweet and forward, so it’s back to regular Dijon next time.

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The occasional days of unseasonably hot weather we’ve experienced lately have activated my craving for full-summer vegetables. Of course there are no local ones yet, nor will there be for weeks and weeks. Nevertheless, I just had to eat something with eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes. I settled on a suitably summery dish of Spaghetti alla Siracusana, a Sicilian recipe from my first cookbook, La Tavola Italiana.
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I bought the firmest eggplant and crispest Bell pepper I could find and opened a can of imported San Marzano tomatoes. The seasonings were capers, anchovy, garlic, and parsley (a substitute for fresh basil), along with generous quantities of olive oil and grated pecorino romano cheese.
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Once the ingredients were prepared, making the sauce was a breeze. I sautéed the diced eggplant, whole garlic clove and chopped anchovy in olive oil for about 7 minutes. I stirred in the pepper strips, chopped tomato, capers, and parsley; covered the pan; and simmered, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes, until the peppers were tender. It seemed a bit dry toward the end, so I added a little water.
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I took out the garlic, added salt and generous grindings of black pepper, and set the sauce aside until we were ready to eat. When the spaghetti was cooked, I dressed it with the reheated sauce and half the pecorino. The grated cheese disappeared right into the sauce.
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As you can see, the pasta wasn’t heavily coated with sauce. It’s not supposed to be. The tomato doesn’t turn into a puree but remains in soft little pieces, as do the eggplant and peppers, adding their textures to each forkful. The olive oil provides all the moisture the dish requires. The rest of the grated cheese went to the dinner table, for each person to add as desired.
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This was an enjoyable pasta, with sweet vegetable flavors and mild nuttiness from the cheese – but sadly, only a ghost of what Spaghetti alla Siracusana can be with fully ripe, newly picked eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes. Good enough to satisfy my pre-season craving, it was an object lesson in why dishes one gets in Italy are often so much more luscious and vibrant than their counterparts in the US. So it wasn’t all I’d hoped for — but it had to do, as the song says, until the real thing comes along.

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In The Pyramid of Mud, the newest paperback Montalbano mystery to be released in English, it takes only to page 34 to find the intrepid Sicilian police detective regaling himself with one of his favorite things to eat: “a glorious pasta ‘ncasciata” that his housekeeper Adelina had made and left for his dinner. That dish appears in many of the 22 books in the series, always eagerly greeted and blissfully consumed by our hero.
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A few years ago I wrote here about my attempt to make that fabulous pasta ‘ncasciata, using the recipe in the cookbook I segreti della tavola di Montalbano: Le ricette di Andrea Camilleri. My version was a bit of a disappointment – a decent baked pasta dish, but not extraordinary.

I knew that there’s no single, canonical version of pasta ‘ncasciata, but they all should be good. Encountering it again in the new Montalbano story, I felt I should really give the recipe another chance.

I had ideas for changes I wanted to try, some because of guesses I’d made about vague recipe directions, and others to liven up the dish I’d made – about which, in my original post, I said “All the ingredients and textures blended too much. You didn’t get the symphony of individual flavors that a forkful of a truly great baked pasta dish provides. The eggplant was barely noticeable, the salami and eggs indistinguishable.”

Ingredients that are available in this country for Sicilian recipes aren’t always identical to the same-named items grown and made on their home turf. Thanks to American agribusiness, ours are often blander, more processed, less flavorful, and less fresh. I’d want to make allowances for that, while still keeping to the spirit of the book’s recipe. (Also, this time I was going to be extremely careful not to overcook the pasta.)

An occasion for my attempt soon presented itself: We’d invited a few good friends for a casual “family” dinner. These were adventurous eaters who wouldn’t mind being experimented on – at least, not if we also gave them lots of good wine! So I set to work.

To start, I peeled, sliced, salted, and fried two one-pound eggplants in olive oil. That was more eggplant, more thickly sliced, than I used last time, but the recipe merely says four eggplants, no size or slice thickness given. We like eggplant a lot.

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Next was to make a tomato-meat sauce. To perk it up, this time I infused garlic and peperoncino in the olive oil for browning my half pound of chopped sirloin. Then I stirred in a pint of my own light tomato sauce, salt, and pepper; and simmered for 25 minutes, until it thickened. That was more tomato and longer cooking than the recipe seems to call for, but its instructions on that point aren’t very clear, and I wanted more tomato richness. Having no fresh basil, I used parsley.

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I boiled a pound of imported Italian penne until they were not quite done, drained them and sprayed them with cold water to stop the cooking. The other ingredients to prepare were two hardboiled eggs, two ounces of mortadella or salame, and two cheeses: caciocavallo and pecorino. Last time I’d used a mild salame; this time I bought a livelier one: hot soppressata.
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My cheeses were the biggest accommodation to ingredient differences. The recipe calls for 7 ounces of tuma or young caciocavallo, plus 3½ ounces of grated pecorino. The only caciocavallo available here is somewhat aged – not soft and fresh, like Sicilian tuma, which isn’t here at all. The first time around, I hadn’t realized how much difference the age would make. The large amount of strong, dry cheese dominated and sort of flattened the flavors of the other ingredients. I didn’t want that to happen again.

Since caciocavallo is in the same broad cheese family as mozzarella (I’ve seen it called “mozzarella on steroids”), I decided to substitute mozzarella for some of the caciocavallo. The cheese in the picture above is 4 ounces of chopped mozzarella mixed with 2 ounces of grated caciocavallo.

I took a broad, shallow baking dish to assemble the ‘ncasciata, making layers of pasta, meat sauce, eggplant, sliced eggs, diced soppressata, and the cheese mixture. The recipe called for grated pecorino on each layer too, but I left it out this time.
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The top layer was eggplant, dabs of sauce, the cheese mixture, and just a light sprinkling of grated pecorino.
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The dish baked for 25 minutes in a 425° oven, sending out a very tempting aroma. Hopes (mine) and expectations (everyone else’s) were high as I brought it to the table. It looked and smelled so good that I began to serve before even remembering to take a photo of it – as you can see by the missing piece at the bottom right, below. (Thanks, Steven, for reminding me!)
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Well, this pasta ‘ncasciata was a definite success. All the flavors stood out as themselves and companioned beautifully with each other. The eggplant was luscious. The two cheeses balanced each other in taste and texture. The amount of tomato seemed just right: it was mostly absorbed by the other ingredients, providing flavor and moisture but no loose liquid. The soppressata tidbits were tiny sparks on the palate. The penne in the center were properly soft, and those at the edges nicely crunchy.

All in all, this was a dish I’d be bold enough to serve to Montalbano himself – at least if Adelina wasn’t around.

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Summer hasn’t quite given up yet, and the principal summer vegetables are still going strong in my greenmarket. To take advantage of this late-season bounty, I turned to James Villas’ Country Cooking, a book that has two recipes for cooked vegetable dishes designed to be served at room temperature, which I’d been meaning to try for a long time.

One is for zucchini and bell peppers, the other for eggplant and onions. These are among our favorite vegetables, but except in very rare circumstances (e.g., zucchini a scapece, eggplant caviar) I only ever serve them hot. Since the book is organized around menus for entertaining, it’s easy to see how useful it is to have substantial vegetable dishes that can be entirely prepared in advance. Even without a party in prospect, I decided to make them both, in reduced quantities.
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Zucchini and Red Peppers Vinaigrette

This is a very lightly cooked dish, finished with a vinaigrette dressing. The ingredients are zucchini cut in sticks, peppers cut in strips, a little chopped onion, and a bit of garlic – staple ingredients of cooking all around the Mediterranean.
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They’re stir-cooked together in butter with salt, pepper, and thyme. The use of butter is a departure for me, as I – and most of the countries around the Med – typically use olive oil for these vegetables. I was curious to see what difference butter would make in the taste.
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As soon as the vegetables had barely softened I transferred them to a dish and, while they were still hot, tossed them with a vinaigrette of olive oil, red wine vinegar, and mustard. Then I covered the dish and refrigerated it for an hour before serving.
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At first taste, the zucchini and peppers seemed rather bland, as if they hadn’t been affected much by either the sautéeing or the dressing. They were quite crunchy, with possibly a faint butteriness detectable under the vinaigrette flavors. As dinner went on, I came to appreciate what a good foil the vegetables made for the braised squab they accompanied, and I wound up liking them very much. Leftovers were just as good the next day.
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Cold Eggplant and Onions

In contrast to the brief cooking time of the previous recipe, this one takes three hours – though there’s no active work in that time. The long cooking, according to Villas, is “what gives the dish its incredibly luscious texture.” It has just a few ingredients: the eggplant, lots of onion, much parsley, a little tomato, a tad of garlic.

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Once the eggplant is sliced, it’s to be salted and set in a colander for an hour to draw out some of the liquid. The recipe didn’t say to peel the eggplant, and mine had fairly tough skin. I wondered if that might cause a problem, but I left it on. (The recipe also didn’t say how to treat the tomatoes. Since there were only the two, I peeled and roughly chopped them.)

After rinsing and drying the eggplant slices, I spread half of them in an ovenproof dish and topped them with half the parsley, all the onion, and all the tomato. I sprinkled on minced garlic, thyme, oregano, salt, pepper, and the rest of the parsley. The rest of the eggplant went on top, along with a modest coating of olive oil.
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Covered, the dish went into a 275° oven and baked undisturbed for two hours. At that point I was supposed to stir the mixture with a fork, cover it again, and return the pan to the oven for a third hour. I wasn’t sure how energetic a stirring was intended, and the top layer of eggplant looked so peaceful, I just nudged things around a little. Everything seemed well cooked already, but I gave it its last hour. Then it had to cool completely before being eaten.
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This was a very mild, mellow dish. “Incredibly luscious texture” isn’t quite the way I’d describe it, though it was pleasant enough. The eggplant (skin included) was ready to melt in the mouth. The dish had a nice onion sweetness, balanced by a slight acidity from the eggplant. A little extra salt helped bring up the flavors. As with the previous vegetable dish, this one proved to be an excellent foil for the dinner meat – in this case, grilled lamb chops.

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So, will I use these recipes for entertainment? I’m not sure. Years ago, when Beloved Spouse and I used to give large parties, they would have been fine. But we really don’t do that anymore. And in style, these dishes don’t fit easily into the kind of small-dinner-party menus we like to put together these days. I’m more likely to make them for ordinary home consumption.

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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.

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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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