Um…can someone tell me why it’s 80°F in Central Texas right now? And why do I not even feel guilty about making ratatouille in the middle of January? Forget the fact that zucchini and squash are selling for pennies; it’s as hot as August in my part of Texas. I’m doing things low-key this week because- lucky me- the military moved us to Texas just in time to live through one of the worst Mountain Cedar seasons in history. So, if it’s that hot AND Mother Nature is trying to kill me, I’ma do whatever I want.
But, why Mountain Cedar, y’all? Why?
What is Mountain Cedar, you ask? Well, dear friend, let me tell you.
Mountain Cedar is the devil. Lucifer. Satan. The spawn of Hades…you picking up what I’m laying down? Mountain Cedar is Juniperus ashei; and if you’ve never heard of it and you decide to move here- brace yourself. This evergreen tree hoards the water from the soil, depriving other trees around it of the water they need. It pollinates this time of year, but this year’s pollen levels are the second-highest in recorded history! That’s like, since they’ve started recording stuff, and junk! I mean, it’s only been recorded since the 90’s, but still! That’s crazy!
According to some sites, the people who suffer the most from the pollen are…you’ve guessed it, northeastern transplants who have arrived here completely unawares…like me!!! And if you’re allergic to it, December-February will become purgatory for you. “Cedar fever” as the locals call it, causes some of the worst allergic reactions known to man (okay, I made that up, but it is bad). My whole family is suffering from congestion, itchy eyes and irritated throats. Misery, plain and simple. I’m thinking of starting a petition to destroy all the Mountain Cedar trees. I’ll keep you posted so youse can sign it too, ‘kay?
So, needless to say, doing a whole lot of intensive cooking and baking isn’t happening- at least not this week. I’m barely able to form coherent thoughts between rubbing my eyes and scratching my throat. Yes, I did have to endure grocery shopping today, and, as a result, I happened upon some fabulous looking eggplant. I wasn’t always a fan of aubergine, but after making it in a few other dishes- like this moussaka– I slowly developed a taste for it.
There must have been a surplus of yellow squash and zucchini in the hemisphere as well, because I was able to score both for 3 for $1! Sure, I know it’s not the season for any of these things, but it’s also not the season for 80° weather and record-breaking pollen counts. I guess it is actually the season for the pollen, but whatevs. Being annoyed with it is an understatement. It’s evil. I digress…
…ratatouille it is.
When the Twinks smelled me sautéing my veggies for the ratatouille base, they asked what I was making. Of course, my response brought wails of, “Like Remy and Colette made in the movie?!?! Like that, Mom!?!?! Will you do it exactly like they did it?!?!” Like, sure kids. Sure, I’ll cook ratatouille the same way a RAT and his moody bestie did in a cartoon…juuuuuust like ’em. And wouldn’t you know it? My little “sucker-for-twinsies’-smiles” sliced and arranged the ratatouille just like the freakin’ rat did!
In all honesty, I’ve always loved the way the ratatouille in the movie was arranged. I never had the patience to do it, but it does look more appealing when you make the effort, and if I can’t look good because of my puffy eyes and red nose, then, by God, my ratatouille will! To think that a rat taught me how to make something look nice. Huh! Anywho, I doesn’t really matter how you arrange the veggies, or if you even arrange them at all. The dish’s origins in the countryside of Nice, France, lead me to believe they didn’t slice and fan like I do here. Once again, I tend to be a culinary rebel; delving from the status quo to do my own thing and make a dish something with my imprint on it.
Ratatouille is also, commonly, prepared by sautéing each vegetable individually and then adding them to the same dish…uh…who has time for that?!?! I mean, I know I ask you to do some labor-intensive things sometimes, but, come on! I have a purpose and a reason for asking you to do it. This old “separate-ratatouille-cooking” rule is just nonsense to me. So, I don’t do it, and I won’t tell you to do it. And, bet, it will still taste delicious.
When shopping for your squash, zucchini, tomatoes and eggplant, try to find ones of equal size. I was stuck with some emaciated zucchini (again, 3 for $1, whaddyagonnado?), so I had to improvise and double up my zucchini layer. Improvisation is the backbone of any well-run kitchen. Often we get too consumed with following recipes to a T; when you’re getting the hang of cooking, it is important to follow the recipe as close to the letter as possible, but circumstances and situations change how you may go about that. When in doubt, go with your gut…or comment below and we’ll see if we can’t work it out together.
Sense & Edibility's Italian Ratatouille
An Italian version of the French provincial dish.
4 medium vine-ripened tomatoes, sliced 1/4" thick
2 zucchini, sliced 1/4" thick
2 yellow squash, sliced 1/4" thick
1 eggplant, halved lengthwise and sliced 1/4" thick
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 large white onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1/2 green bell pepper, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 14 oz can petite diced tomatoes
1 4 oz can tomato sauce
1 bay leaf
1 tsp dried oregano
2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
2 tsp fresh rosemary leaves, chopped
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
8 oz mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
8 oz fresh grated parmesan cheese
Preheat your oven to 400°F. Get out a 9"x13" casserole or baking dish, or a large saucier (pictured below). Arrange your sliced veggies in the order you wish to place them into your baking dish or casserole pan. Set aside.
In a large skillet, heat your olive oil over medium-high heat. Add your diced veggies, including the garlic. Sauté for three minutes, or until the onions are translucent.
Add the canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, bay leaf and oregano to the pan and simmer for 5-10 minutes or until the sauce reduces and the liquid has evaporated slightly. Stir in the remaining herbs and spices and remove from heat.
Add the mascarpone cheese and stir until the sauce is smooth and the cheese is fully incorporated. Allow to cool for five minutes.
Arrange your sliced veggies in whichever order you prefer. If you have smaller slices (like my zucchini), use two slices instead of one. Begin laying them into the pan, overlapping each section; make sure to pack them the veggies tight, as they will shrink during cooking.
Cover the pan with a lid or a piece of aluminum foil and bake for 20 minutes. After twenty minutes, take the pan out of the oven and remove the aluminum foil. Sprinkle the parmesan cheese over the surface of the ratatouille and return to the oven to bake for an additional 20-25 minutes. Once the cheese has melted and begun to brown, remove the pan from the oven and allow to cool for 5 minutes before serving.
To prepare this ratatouille in the traditional stew, forgo the slicing of the veggies and, instead, give them a rough chop. Sauté each vegetable separately (minus the tomatoes) in a tbsp of extra virgin olive oil. Combine them once they are lightly browned by tossing them together a separate bowl. Spoon them on top of the prepared tomato-mascarpone cheese sauce. Continue as directed.