Monday, August 29, 2011

The Provençal treatment

Cooking with eggplant can be tricky business. If not given the proper care it can go from being a beautiful purple globe to a soggy, stringy mess, all in a matter of minutes. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, if what you want is baba ganoush or eggplant caviar, but a lot times you're looking for something different. To be fair, a certain amount of sogginess is inevitable with this particular vegetable. You have to let go of the eggplant you lovingly picked at the market, and rest assured that the end result will silky soft morsels of deliciousness, coaxed into submission with high heat and a good dose of olive oil. In my opinion, the light spongy flesh begs for the Provençal treatment, all the way: infused with oil and garlic and mingling, naturally, with tomato, that brilliant crown jewel of late summer. Yes, my friends, I give you Ratatouille.

I'd never eaten nor made Ratatouille until last night, when I went over to my friend Felicia's house to make Molly's version together. But as you can probably tell, this is a dish I've been wanting to make for a long time, really ever since seeing that wonderful Pixar movie of the same name. I may have even mentioned this film here before, it's one of my favorites for sure. I still giggle inside every time I think about Remy and his adventures, and I melt a little bit when I think of Anton Ego and his epiphany that immediately takes him back to his childhood. Why it took so long to try this recipe, I have no idea. For me, anything that screams 'French home cooking' eventually makes its way onto my to-make-soon list, and Ratatouille certainly belongs in that genre. 
Anyway, Felicia and I have been weekly dinners together for a few weeks now, where we shop at the farmer's market and then plan a meal to make together (but usually in the reverse order). We've been alternating houses, but this time around we were cooking at her house. It's not so easy sometimes cooking in someone else's kitchen, but I'm starting to get used to it. It takes awhile to learn where things are and how to work the stove, and sometimes I'm not so good talking and, say, chopping at the same time, but again it takes a little practice. Anyway, I suppose we've been on a bit of an eggplant kick lately because last time we made a pasta with japanese eggplant and mozzarella, from this recipe I got from Martha Stewart Living. It was nice meal, but it pales in comparison to what we made last night. Bite after bite, it was flavorful yet comforting -- summery and fresh, but still extremely satisfying from its warmth and depth. 
Contrary to what I thought, I had no qualms with the texture of the vegetables, which I worried would become a little too soft. It just sort of worked, in the end, and I think this is partly due to Molly's method. Like Julia Child, she cooks the vegetables in stages, beginning with the zucchini, and then followed by the onion, bell pepper, and tomato. Also what is unique about this recipe is that she roasts the eggplant first, which I believe is key in terms of flavor and texture. Although it breaks down a bit when the cubed pieces are added to the pan later on, each piece maintains its integrity, so to speak. It's not simply sauced veggies, collapsed onto each other - you can tell what you eating, and it's wonderful. Particularly with an egg on top, as I had. Also, we admittedly shaved a few minutes off the suggested cooking time, and I'm glad we did that, too. 

I can't believe summer is almost over, but it's time to face the facts, I'm afraid. I do apologize for my long absence; I've had a rough couple of months, but I think I'm ready to get back to writing. After posting here I always have a little spring in my step, and that's what I think I need going into September. Even though I'm not in school anymore, I still get that feeling that the new year really begins right about now, right around Labor Day. Yet this year I'm thinking about where I was about this time last year, when we all of us were together, my dad, mom, my sister and her boyfriend, and me -- when we spent a week in a house on the Russian River. That was our last vacation together. But we had no idea that would be our last, at the time. 
In first year or since I moved back home I remember countless summer nights when my dad would be out manning the grill, chatting away on the telephone, and my mom and I would be inside furiously getting the rest of the meal ready. Sometimes my dad would pop for a second to catch the 'top of the news,' as he called it, and for an half an hour or so the house to be a chaotic mix of sounds from the kitchen, all the clanging and whirring and sizzling, and the steady voice of Brian Williams on the TV, methodically reading America the evening broadcast. Then somehow all the food would magically make it the table at approximately the same time, and we'd sit down and eat. And everything tasted better knowing that we each had a part in what we saw before us. 

I know I've probably said this before, maybe many times over, but cooking is so much about being together, appreciating life as it is in that moment, whoever you are with. So go out make something delicious with an eggplant, and enjoy every bite. 

Note: No recipe today, as I so want you to get A Homemade Life. Get it at the library, if you must. It's even in paperback!