Caroline Tracey makes a classic dish with the Farm’s freshest ingredients and no recipe to guide her.
At the start of this summer’s farm internship, I planted the seeds of vegetables that would be bountiful late in the summer in specific anticipation of one dish: ratatouille. I waited for the day when tomatoes, eggplants, zucchini and onions would be ready to be picked from their plants and simmered all together.
Much of the farm conversation this summer has revolved around we interns’ food-challenged backgrounds. Most of us grew up eating fast food and so working for the YSFP, with its focus on the way that food brings people together, felt like jumping blindly into something that other people held innately, or had inherited effortlessly, from childhood. Growing up in a house that was always down a stove burner or three, my family’s food traditions included ordering pizza weekly with my grandmother and going to Applebee’s with my grandfather (proud owner of man’s simplest palette). Family gatherings were not lacking in tradition or celebration – we’re jovial people – but in my mind’s eye, it’s Parcheesi on the dining room table, not a home-cooked meal.
Learning to make ratatouille opened to me the world of making delicious things out of vegetables, and having ownership and self-sufficiency in the kitchen. Unsurprisingly, the catalyst in this story is the movie of the same title. I was spending the weekend at my Dad’s house while the movie was in theaters, and my stepmother, who is committed to orchestrating family outings during the sparse time that we all spend together, suggested that we go see it. It’s a hard task to get my claustrophobic father into a theater, but she did, and afterwards got him into the kitchen to prepare, from memory, this dish that I had never heard of. It turned out that he had learned to make the French peasant dish in the years after high school that he spent living in towns in France and Spain. I joined him in the kitchen, and he started to pass the method on to me. Yesterday, I got to re-create it here for the first time this season.
The tools for making ratatouille are simple: a knife and a pan large enough to be loaded up with cut vegetables. Clean-up is easy! To prepare my working space, I lined up my vegetables on the counter: onions, zucchini, eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes – a set that always looks like it should be photographed.
First into the pan go the onions. I used three of the small white ones we pulled up from the farm this week. After peeling them and warming up the olive oil in the pan, I hold each onion in my hand and cut carefully through it towards my thumb, making odd shapes – the peasant lore says that more surface area means more flavor. I let the onions simmer, turn the heat low so that nothing will cook too quickly, and add the zucchini, cutting it with the same irregularity as the onions. I let the two cook over the low heat, and cover the pan with a sheet of tin foil. The tin foil to retain moisture is an invention of my dad’s. Everyone adds their own techniques to ratatouille - as Dad taught me the dish, he reminded me, “there’s no recipe, so you’ll do it a little differently every time, and eventually you’ll figure out your own ways.” By now I have made the dish enough times that when I make it, I recall the method he taught me, but also consider what sounds right to me – getting closer each time to a dish that is distinctly mine.
When the zucchini gets a little brown, I add the eggplants (three small ones from the farm), cutting with the same technique as the other vegetables. In the movie, the vegetables are served in perfect thin slices – this dish will look nothing like that, and will be better for it! The eggplants get soft and brown quicker than the zukes. As they do, I stir the vegetables around a bit, and add some more olive oil and some spices – thyme, oregano, salt and pepper, to my tastes, one example of the decisions that make the dish one’s own. A little sugar is also important – it cuts the acidity of the tomatoes. At this point in the recipe one can add some wine or beer for extra liquid, but not having any on hand, I relied on the juices of the vegetables.
Next are the peppers, the only vegetables last night not to come from the Yale Farm. The only peppers I could find at the farmers’ market were green ones from Stone Gardens farm, which are not as flavorful as their red and yellow counterparts, but I’ll look forward to those later in the season. I core the peppers with a knife, pour out the seeds, and then tear off pieces into the pan. I move the vegetables around a bit with my spatula and prepare for the last addition to the dish: tomatoes, the most-anticipated jewels of the farm’s season.
I cored the tomatoes and cut off their worst blemishes – they are imperfect but sublimely so, the best badge to show that this meal had not come from anything close to industrial agriculture. Then I palmed the base of each and squeezed its juice into the pan, shielding with my other hand to try to minimize the number of errant seeds that landed on my shirt. With the new juice the dish starts to simmer audibly and the colors and flavors start to run together – my favorite part of making the meal. I rip up the rest of the tomatoes and add them to the mix. I add some more spices, stir the vegetables around a bit, and re-cover the pan with tin foil. The longer it simmers all together, the more the flavors will blend, and the better it will be.
Voila! The most flexible of dishes, and one of the simplest and most delicious. From here you have lots of options for making the dish into a full meal. We elected last night to serve it on top of bulgur wheat; it’s also great on pasta and rice. Once, in Georgia, I added okra and served it on grits; at home we often add black beans and make it into burritos. It can be anything and everything, and this time of year, all the ingredients are in season and delicious. Enjoy, and make it your own.