Sunday, June 24, 2012

Ratatouille -- Provencal Vegetables

Ratatouille is a Provencal vegetable stew that many of you already know about, maybe from its famous portrayal in Pixar’s animated movie a few years ago. I loved the movie, but the ratatouille dish presented in the film has little resemblance to authentic Ratatouille from Provence. Instead, they depicted a tomato and zucchini tart that is often served at fancy French restaurants as an attractive side dish for grilled or roast meat to impress customers.

 There are so many versions/recipes, but most importantly Ratatouille is a “summer vegetable dish” that calls for the freshest ingredients summer can offer.

Second in importance is that you need to cook each vegetable separately (eggplant, pepper and zucchini), then mix them with cooked onion, garlic and ripe tomatoes and simmer all together to finish. This takes a bit longer but preserves the best flavor and aroma of each vegetable. Otherwise, it’s going to be a mushy, messy looking stew… believe me, I sometimes do it that way even though I know I shouldn’t. But when people are hungry they can’t wait.

Another option, which I often do at home, is to cut all the vegetables into large pieces (including onion and tomatoes); place them in a large bowl; toss with olive oil, chopped garlic and salt; then grill everything. When they are easy to handle, cut the veggies into smaller pieces and put them back in the bowl. Adjust seasonings with black pepper, more olive oil and sliced or chopped fresh herbs (basil, marjoram, thyme, etc.). It seems my American friends like it this way, grilled, more than the stew.

Ratatouille can be enjoyed either hot or cold and is often taken on picnics after being thoroughly chilled, to be served between slices of baguette cut lengthwise, or used in open-faced sandwiches, like bruschetta.  

Serve with a Cote du Rhone (red, white or rosé), or a simple Pinot Noir.

Ratatouille—Provencal Vegetable Stew
Serves 4-5 as a side dish

3/4 cup (10 tablespoons) good fruity olive oil, or more if needed
2 medium eggplants, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes (or 4 small Japanese or Italian eggplants, with skin left on)
2 small green zucchini, cut into half-inch thick pieces
2 small yellow zucchini or summer squash, cut into half-inch pieces
1 green bell pepper, sliced
1 red bell pepper, sliced

2 medium onions, sliced or diced
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
3-4 medium sized ripe tomatoes (about 1 ¼ pounds), peeled, seeded and roughly chopped
about 1cup fresh basil, or flat leaf parsley, sliced or chopped
leaves from a few sprigs of fresh marjoram or thyme (optional)
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet or pot (4-5 quarts), add eggplant with a little salt, stir frequently and cook over medium-high heat about 3-4 minutes or until brown on all sides. Remove them with a slotted spoon to a large plate.

Clean the skillet with a paper towel, add 3 tablespoons olive oil and cook the zucchini  and the yellow squash with a little salt until lightly browned, about 3-4 minutes. Remove them with slotted spoon to the plate. Repeat for the peppers.

Clean the skillet with paper towel, add 2 tablespoons olive oil and cook the red and green peppers until tender about 3-4 minutes.

Clean the skillet with paper towel, add 2 tablespoons olive oil, cook the onion and the garlic for a couple minutes until soft, then add all the cooked vegetables, the tomatoes and marjoram and thyme, and stir well until the vegetables start bubbling. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover the skillet and simmer about 5-6 minutes. Don’t overcook the vegetables. Remove from heat, add the fresh basil and transfer to a serving bowl.

1. It is not necessary to disgorge/sweat the vegetables, such as eggplant and zucchini, with salt, a practice that many recipes call for. It makes the vegetables soggy.
2. Always halve tomatoes horizontally when they will be seeded, so that you can easily remove all the seeds.


Saturday, June 16, 2012

Peaches and Strawberries in Pink Champagne

Decades after the fateful bite that I took of the peach when I was in Padova at the age of twelve, I still think there is nothing more sensuous than biting into a perfectly ripe peach.
-- Lidia Matticchio Bastiannich on the Peach Tart with Cocoa-Almond Crust recipe in Lidia’s Italy.

Ever since my grandmother handed me a luscious peach when I was a child, I’ve felt the same way as Lidia about peaches. To me a peach is always very special, not only because of childhood memories (including countless readings of “Peach Boy,” the famous Japanese folk hero), but, most importantly, their beautiful color and shape, and irresistible soft/sweet taste and smell... like a beautiful woman!

Yes it is peach season, and lucky for me an organic peach farmer, Kashiwase, and Lucero (Real Strawberries) are next to each other at the Menlo Park farmers market. I couldn’t ask for anything more – the two sell my most favorite fruits of all. 

 I normally eat a ripe peach as is, after waiting until it reaches maximum ripeness on the table (nice to look at, also) then chilling it briefly before eating. What a joy! But I was curious about any desserts that use fresh peaches. When I was in culinary training many years ago, I learned to make the famous classic dish “Peach Melba,” which is so delicious. But nowadays I don’t see it in cooking magazines or on restaurant menus. So I pulled out a few old cookbooks from my bookshelf to look for peach recipes. I found out there aren’t many, but, interestingly, all the books I checked have almond in the recipes. 

Peaches Stuffed with Almond—Simple French Cookery, Edna Beilenson
Peaches with Grenadine—A Provencal Kitchen, Suzanne McLucas
Baked Peaches with Almond Macaroons—Trattoria, Patricia Wells
Peach Tart with Cocoa-Almonds—Lidia’s Italy, Lidia Matticchio Bastiannich

However, a recipe that stands out is “Peaches and Strawberries in Pink Champagne” from Simply French: Patricia Wells Presents the Cuisine of Joël Robuchon. This recipe is a bit decadent, but it’s a relatively easy yet elegant way to indulge in peaches, strawberries and Champagne... and it’s perfect in warm weather!

 Peaches and Strawberries in Pink Champagne
Salade de Pêches et Fraises au Champagne Rosé

6 servings

The author says: "Superbly festive dessert, this dish sings of summer and sun. The combination of peaches, strawberries and pink Champagne is elegant, colorful and rich. Of course, you won’t want to use top vintage Champagne here, but don’t skimp either."

Recipe adapted from Simply French by Patricia Wells.

½ cup sugar
1 cup water
8 ounces strawberries, hulled
3-4 peaches or nectarines
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 bottle pink Champagne, chilled
Fresh mint leaves, for garnish

1.      Prepare the syrup: In a saucepan, combine the sugar with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Whisk constantly until boiling, then boil without whisking for 1 minute. Set aside to cool.

2.      Prepare the fruit: Quarter the strawberries lengthwise and place in a large bowl. Peel the peaches and cut in half. Remove and discard the pit, and cut each half into 4 equal slices. Place the peaches in the bowl with strawberries, add the lemon juice and syrup, and toss gently to combine. Cover and place in the refrigerator for 1 hour to allow flavors to blend.

3.      To finish, remove the peach and strawberry mixture from refrigerator. With a slotted spoon, divide the fruit among 6 wide, shallow Champagne coupes, allowing about 1 tablespoon of syrup in each glass.

4.      Just before serving, uncork the Champagne and pour enough into each glass (about 1/2 cup = 4 fl oz) to just cover the fruit. Garnish with fresh mint and serve.

Nutrition per serving (assuming only half of syrup is used and 4 oz Champagne per serving): 170 calories, less than ½ g fat (0 saturated), 0 cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 25 g carbohydrate, 2 g fiber, 20 g sugars, 1 g protein, 6% DV for vitamin A, 40% DV for vitamin C. Nutrition analysis provided by Palate Works.

Note:  Rosé Champagne from France is very fashionable today but expensive (e.g., Veuve Cliquot Rosé $60+). Here are some good, but less expensive, sparkling wine options:

Mumm Napa Valley Brut Rosé, $16.99 at Trader Joe’s
Blason de Bourgogne (Crémant) Brut Rose, $10.99 at Trader Joe’s
Louise d’Estrée Brut Rosé, $6.99 at Trader Joe’s

Mumm is a famous French Champagne company and has some production in Napa Valley. Blason is a good sparkling wine for the price, and Louise d’Estrée is not bad either.

In my neighborhood I normally shop for wine at BevMo, K&L Wines, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods Market. It seems wine prices at Trader Joe’s are often the best, although selection is more limited.

About Sparkling wine:

Friday, June 8, 2012

Rosé Wine from Provence

Summer is almost here in Northern California. When it starts smelling of warm, clean air I always think of Provence – one of my favorite places on earth. I love its landscape, blue sky, radiant sun, warm Mediterranean sea, the smell of fresh herbs and lavender… and of course the great food and wine! California has similar weather – blue sky, strong sun and dry air – but no warm sea (the Pacific Ocean off California is cold), no cicadas (a bit noisy, but that’s the sound of summer I grew up with), no sudden thunderstorms in the afternoon, and then there’s the lack of rustic coziness (we are surrounded by everything big and modern here). 

In the next few posts I would like to write about food and wine from Provence, starting with something about the wine. 

The most well known wine from the south of France available in the U.S. is probably Côte de Rhône (a red wine made with grenache grapes). The grenache grape is adapted to hot and dry climates and makes warm, strong, fruit-flavored wines, with a slightly pale color and high alcohol content. Smooth and low in tannins, the wine is particularly good for summer barbeques of grilled chicken or meat. Another good thing about Grenache wine – it’s generally quite affordable.

However, when I think about Provencal style vegetable and seafood dishes and fresh goat cheese in the summer, my first choice would be rosé wines. Rosé wines are most often made in the same way as reds, but the dark grape skins are removed after only a day or two. Provencal rosé is light, medium-dry (not sweet) and the perfect companion for a summer meal especially its ability to pair well with garlic and fresh herb based dishes. They are best when young and chilled.

2011 Andrieux & Fils Côtes de Provence Rosé
This rosé has a beautiful pale pink rose petal color with aromas of raspberries, strawberries and hints of exotic fruits. The palate offers an array of fruits with touches of apricots and white peaches. The well balanced finish is both satisfying and refreshing. Pairs well with Pissaaladière, Salade Nicoise and Crespèu (open-faced omelet). $14.99 at K&L Wines.


2010 Quinson Fils Côtes de Provence Rosé

A typical simple, light and dry but fruity Provencal rosé at a great price. I have been enjoying this wine very much but I’m afraid it’s going to be sold out before we reach mid-summer, because wineries in Provence are relatively small and production limited. I bet Trader Joe’s purchased the entire stock of rosé from this winery. $4.99 at Trader Joe’s (don’t tell anyone!).

2011 La Ferme Julien Luberon, Rhône Valley White
According to the description on the bottle: “This elegant and fruity wine comes from vines grown high on the slopes of the Luberon Mountain, one of the Rhône Valley’s coolest vineyards. It has been meticulously selected and blended by the Perrin Family, who is known for producing some of the very best wines of the Rhône Valley.
The blend of Bouboulenc, Gernache Blanc, Ugni Blanc and Roussanne grapes has produced a typical Rhône Valley white wine.”
I’m not sure if it’s elegant or not, but to me it’s a simple, dry and slightly herbal white wine that’s good for any food/meal in hot weather. Same price as the Quinson Fils rosé... I bought a case. $4.99 at Trader Joe’s.


Note about Provence Wines: 

Provence encompasses the southeastern portion of France that borders the Mediterranean. The largest appellation in the region is the Côtes de Provence (mainly known for rosé), which spans 49,600 acres in and around Marseilles. Thirteen different varietals are grown in this appellation, with the most important grapes being Carignan, Cinsault, Grenache, and Mouvedre (none makes great wine alone, but blended together they can make very interesting wines). While much of the production is dry rosé, there are many more serious wines (e.g., red Bandol -- tannic, dark, and rich in black fruit flavors) being made from the area. Some of the most important smaller appellations within Provence include Bandol, Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence, and Coteaux Varois, which produce nice red wines beside rosé.

Provence Wine Map:

Avignon, Provence

Friday, June 1, 2012

Real Strawberries

 The weather is warming up again in the Bay Area, and my favorite organic farmer, Lucero, has returned to the Menlo Park farmers market. He's back with just his great strawberries. Strawberries are already at peak, but his are making their first appearance for the season. He is a small farmer from Lodi (east of San Francisco) and does not farm many varieties of produce – mainly just tomatoes, squash, eggplant and strawberries – so  he does not come to the market 4-5 months during the cold season. 

 Lucero’s strawberries are small but cute and have real strawberry flavor, never super-sized with white, un-ripened flesh inside. I was not the only person waiting for his strawberries; there were others, including from some high-end restaurants. Lucero’s strawberries are number one on my list of fruit, right next to small white peaches (also coming into season). So I made my first strawberry ice cream of the season using Lucero’s berries.

Strawberry Ice Cream using Lucero’s Berries
Makes about 5 cups (1.25 quarts)

1 ½ cups (about 12 oz.) fresh strawberries, halved
½ cup whole milk
2/3 cup raw cane sugar (do not use highly processed granulated white sugar)
1 ½ cups organic heavy cream
1 ½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Garnish: extra strawberries, fresh mint

Put the strawberries into bowl of food processor fitted with chopping blade. Pulse the strawberries until roughly chopped (do not chop too fine). Reserve in a bowl.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the milk and sugar until sugar is dissolved. Stir in the heavy cream and the vanilla. Stir in the strawberries with all the juices, then cover and refrigerate for at least 1-2 hours.

Turn on the ice cream maker, pour the mixture into the freezer bowl and let mix until thickened, about 15-20 minutes. Transfer the ice cream to an airtight container and place in freezer for about 2 hours.

To serve: Remove ice cream from freezer about 6-7 minutes before serving, more or less (depends on how hot the weather is). It should have a soft and creamy texture. Garnish with extra strawberries and fresh mint.

Nutrition per 1/10 recipe (probably a little more than 1/2 cup):
190 calories, 14 g fat (9 g saturated), 51 mg cholesterol, 19 mg sodium, 17 g carbohydrate, 1 g fiber, 15 g sugars, 1 g protein, 10% DV for vitamin A, 34% DV for vitamin C.
For comparison, Haagen Daz has 250 calories, 16 g fat (10 g saturated), 22 g sugars and 10% DV for vitamin C (that means more sugar and fewer strawberries) per 1/2 cup.
Nutrition info provided by Palate Works.

Lucero's Strawberries

Organic Strawberries from local super market