healthy eating

Enough with the Ratatouille. What's for Dessert?

I’d like to say “a plate of figs” but that’s the kind of answer that apparently can lead to culinary combat. (After taking pot shots at just such a dish, one New York chef got into quite a bit of trouble himself.) I’m pretty sure I can fly below the radar on this one, though. And seriously, the dessert you’re most likely to find on a Mediterranean table is a plate of figs—or peaches, or plums, or whatever the orchards and fields and markets happen to be spilling out that week.
 
 
Even if you’re “just” serving figs, as David Tanis points out (pre-controversy) in his aptly titled book A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes, you do need to know your figs.
“Are they sun-ripened and bursting with jammy sweetness? Are they succulent enough to eat as is, or do they want a sprinkling of salt, a drizzle of good olive oil, perhaps a thin slice of prosciutto? A dab of fresh ricotta and honey to heighten the flavor?”
For the last month in NYC greenmarkets, the bounty has been stone fruits: plums, apricots, peaches, nectarines, which are packed with the antioxidants and phytonutrients associated with disease prevention. (Antioxidants are thought to be central to the health benefits of the traditional Mediterranean diet.) Stone fruits have been plentiful and good this year, which isn’t always the case. 
 
 
 
I grew up in southwestern Ontario where August brought baskets and baskets of peaches that we ate freely—with every meal and in between. Cornflakes and peaches for breakfast, juicy peach eaten standing over the kitchen sink, sliced peaches with sour cream. And just like apples have names—Macintosh, Granny Smith, Northern Spy—these peaches all had names, too. (Red Haven is one I remember.) I thought that’s the way the world was—full of wonderful peaches. Then I moved away and spent the next decades being disappointed by peaches—pulpy ones, tasteless ones, green ones—until I practically gave up. But hope springs eternal and so it’s a happy day when the local peaches arrive and the crop is a good one and you can bite into a sweet, juicy one—or two—or three.
 
 
So, yes, peaches on a plate is a perfect dessert right now.
 
Or plums in a bowl.
 
 
And if you’re looking to fancy things up a bit, here are three other simple ways to serve fruit.
 
Shower berries (or cut fruit) over a big dollop of Greek yogurt (I know, dollop is not a technical term; let’s say 1/2 cup)  in your bowl. Add a drizzle of maple syrup if you’re a girl like me who likes to be reminded of home. (It tastes wonderful without, too.)
 
Macerate the fruit: Cut it up, removing any nasty bits (this method is a good way to deal with fruit that’s either side of the tipping point of ripeness). Sprinkle with 1 to 2 tbs sugar (I use turbinado) for every two cups of fruit, and let sit for half an hour or more. The juices from the fruit will emerge, making a wonderful sauce (and flavoring the yogurt if you use it).
 
I was introduced to eating fruit this way years ago when my brother John, who was just back from months spent traveling around Italy and the Mediterranean, served me the most beautiful bowl of oranges—sliced into rounds and steeped in their own juices: my first taste of Macedonia di Frutta.  I find that combining fewer different types of fruit works better than more; use ones that complement each other (peaches and blueberries are a winner at this time of year).
 
There are hundreds of variations on this basic idea, often inspired by products that grow together—like the wild strawberries outside of Ferrara and the balsamic vinegar from nearby Modena (as Babbo pastry chef Gina DePalma describes here). Wine or liqueurs are often involved.
 
So... add a tablespoon or two of balsamic vinegar to a pint of strawberries, or a 1/4 cup of Prosecco or Cava. Add white or rosé wine to peaches, a tablespoon or two of Grand Marnier to a bowl of orange macédoine. Or use lavender-flavored sugar or sprinkle crystallized ginger or fresh mint on top. (But perhaps not all of the above at once!)
 
What are your favorite combos? Let us know via the comment box below.
 
Poach the fruit: One of my favorite examples of this—made with pears—is from nouveau Greek chef Michael Psilakis. Poaching is a good method if the only fruit you can find is a bit hard, which is frequently the case through the winter months in NYC.
 
Peel, quarter and core 2 pears. Cut each quarter into thirds. Put in a saucepan with one cup water and ½ cup sugar (the recipe calls for a cup but I find ½ cup works just fine). Add 4 peppercorns, a star of anise and a cinnamon stick. Bring to a gentle boil, then turn down and simmer for 10 minutes.
 
Remove the spices. Put ½ cup of Greek yogurt in each of four bowls. Divide the pears and juice among the bowls. Top with toasted, chopped walnuts. (Or not, if you prefer.)
 
Et voilà, a fruit dessert fit for kings and queens. 

Ratatouille By Any Other Name...

When you talk about a Mediterranean diet, it’s hard to imagine that 20-plus countries bordering one sea could have anything identifiable as a single diet. Yet because of history and climate and customs, dishes that are really variations on a theme do show up quite often. The Provençal stew of eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, garlic, onions and olive oil is a good example.
 
 
Ratatouille has cousins all over the Mediterranean, each with its own distinctive personality and special taste. The core ingredients—eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, zucchini—are not even native to the Mediterranean (although the essential olive oil certainly is). They came to the region long ago by different routes. Eggplant was introduced throughout the Mediterranean basin by Arabs who brought it from its native India in the Middle Ages. Bell peppers, zucchini and tomatoes came from the New World, introduced to Europe by Christopher Columbus and his pals. (Strangely enough, all but the zucchini are members of the nightshade family. As in deadly nightshade. Which apparently is why Europeans were originally suspicious of the tomato, although the Mediterranean countries certainly came around, adopting it with passion and creativity as a quintessential Med ingredient.)
 
 
So about all those cousins…this is what I’ve come across so far. (Additions and corrections welcome! Add a comment below.)
 
Catalan samfaina, or xamfaina, is virtually identical to ratatouille. Colman Andrews speculates in his book Catalan Cuisine that perhaps, in fact, samfaina came first “considering the early popularity of eggplant [among] Catalans and the fact that [they] were using tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini widely before their French neighbors were.” It also sometimes takes the form of a sauce, when it’s cooked longer into an almost jammy consistency.
 
Then there’s the caponata side of the family:
 
Sicilian caponata adds celery to the basic four, plus sweetened vinegar and capers for a sweet-and-sour dish.
 
Maltese kapunata eliminates the zucchini and adds capers.
 
Moroccan kamfounata is spiced with cumin and fresh coriander (cilantro).
 
Tunisians call their stew of peppers and tomatoes shakhshūkha—to which they add eggs and cayenne, and maybe chickpeas. Tunisian Jews probably brought the dish to Israel, where it is very popular. (Try it right here in NYC at Hummus Place, where it includes eggplant and onions.) In fact, it’s become a common dish throughout North Africa, where it’s sometimes served with spicy Merguez sausage. 
 
Turks love their eggplant any way they can get it. Imam bayildi (“the priest swooned”) leaves behind ratatouille’s zucchini and pepper and gives center stage to braised eggplant, which is stuffed with onion, garlic and tomatoes. Karniyak keeps the eggplant, pepper, tomatoes trio and adds minced meat and rice.
 
Musakka was originally an Ottoman dish, but is widely known today in its Greek incarnation moussaka: stewed eggplant and tomatoes with meat, topped with a béchamel sauce. Various Turkish versions have zucchini or green peppers or chickpeas or no béchamel.
 
Then there’s the don’t-forget-that-other-nightshade-veggie crowd. We’re talking potatoes.
 
Mallorcan tumbet, or tombet, is made from eggplants, peppers, tomatoes—and potatoes—although sometimes zucchini pops in there, too.
 
Greek briami is a casserole of zucchini, potatoes, onions and tomatoes (sometimes peppers, too). It makes a great dish for Meatless Monday, as do many of these. I haven’t tried this briami recipe yet myself but the test kitchen of one hungry student named Stefan in Montreal vouches for it as a tasty and satisfying meal (good enough to eat two nights in a row).
 
 
And then, of course, there’s the fabulously high-style ratatouille of movie fame, actually a dish called confit byaldi, invented by chef Michel Guerard (of cuisine minceur fame) and created for the movie—with the vegetables fanned out accordion style—by French Laundry (Yountville, CA) chef Thomas Keller, who worked as a culinary consultant for the film. 
 
Here’s a simpler but equally stylish rendition of that dish from Smitten Kitchen.
 
The creativity just goes on and on. What’s your riff on ratatouille? Or your family’s tradition?  Write to us!

RECIPE: Briami, or Greek Vegetable Casserole

BRIAMI IS ONE OF MANY ratatouille-like dishes found around the Mediterranean, each with its own distinctive taste and slight variations of ingredients. Served with a green salad, this makes a great main dish. Meatless Monday anyone?
 
Serves 3-4 as a main dish, 4-6 as a side
 
1 large red pepper, roughly chopped
¼ cup olive oil
2 onions, sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 medium zucchini (about ¾ lb), thickly sliced
¾ lb small potatoes, unpeeled, cut into ½ inch slices
2 lbs ripe tomatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
(when tomatoes are out of season, use drained, canned Italian tomatoes—Marzano if possible)
1 tsp dried oregano
2 tbs chopped fresh flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
2 tbs chopped fresh dill
½ tsp ground cinnamon
 
Preheat oven to 350°F.
 
Place peppers, zucchini, potatoes, tomatoes, herbs and cinnamon in a bowl and season generously with salt and pepper.
 
Heat 2 tbs of the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until soft but not browned, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and cook until aromatic, about 2 minutes. Add the onion mixture to the other vegetables in the bowl and toss together. Transfer to a large baking dish and drizzle with remaining olive oil.
 
Cover and bake 1 to 1½ hours, stirring every 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.
 
Eat as a main dish, with a salad, or as a side dish with chicken or fish. It can be served hot or at room temperature.
 
Adapted from The Essential Mediterranean Cookbook (Bay Books, an imprint of Murdoch Books). 

Another Salvo in the Ratatouille Skirmishes

Salon is reigniting the Great Ratatouille Debate. Is it a simple “what-the-hell-are-we-going-to-do-with-all-this-stuff kind of [stew],” as writer Francis Lam puts it (and was at first inclined toward), or is there much more to it? As readers of this blog know by now, Mediterraneanista tends to lean toward the lazy, er, easy approach to cooking.

But there’s nothing like a good writer (Lam was a contributing editor at Gourmet) to spark a little open-mindedness. As he recounts the story of spending four hours (!) in the kitchen to create a ratatouille that is “the BOMB,” I find myself getting curious and beginning to think maybe, one day, I’ll have to try the more complicated recipe. I mean, who can resist tasting a “weapons grade ratatouille—with flavor so deep it’ll drop your voice an octave”? At least once. Stay posted.

At the Farmstand This Week

Mediterraneanista has been traveling so there’s not much cooking or food foraging to report in NYC—but plenty of summer sights and tastes to enjoy along the road. Cherries in season on the Niagara Peninsula, for one. All along the Canadian shore of Lake Ontario, fruit farms and vineyards stretch for miles. Even The Great One has found a place in the growing Ontario wine business: His No. 99 Wayne Gretsky Estates bottles have been getting good reviews and raising money for his foundation. Theater buffs have always flocked to Niagara-on-the-Lake’s annual Shaw Festival every summer. Now wine country gives them another reason to linger. (Next time passing this way Mediterraneanista will do more lingering herself. Sigh.)

The urban gardens of Toronto—a city where large immigrant groups from Mediterranean-area countries have brought with them their love of vegetable gardening, fresh produce markets (and World Cup soccer!)—were bursting out of small spaces.

 

Lunch Karma—It Was Mine!

So Mediterraneanista was into her second day of hard labor at The Storage Room, the extra room of our Manhattan apartment that we keep in Fort Lee, New Jersey. We were switching from a 10x10 to a 10x5—sorting, trashing, agonizing over (OMG, can you believe they actually wore this 8-inch-long shirt; read this poem, no really, he was only 6...) I was hot, hungry and had just done a face plant into a box, tripping over a cement pedestal for a garden statue (don’t ask) that I had put in my own way. It was definitely time for a lunch break, but where?
 
Well, miraculously, just a few steps down Main Street we see a sign: “Joeyness: All Natural Gourmet Mediterranean Foods.” Was my luck changing? Inside the small café and takeout place, we find three friendly people—chef/owner Joseph Ghazal and his mother and brother—serving made-from-scratch Lebanese specialities. We order falafel wrap sandwiches and tabouleh. While we wait, the Joeyness himself gives us a sample of the vegan lentil soup he’s just made. Delicious! Which is not surprising, since Ghazal, it turns out, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. He opened the store three years ago, he tells us, after initially making Middle Eastern spreads for wholesale distribution. 
 
The falafel, made with chickpeas and favas, was fresh and soooo tasty; the tabouleh had just the right balance of green to grain and a wonderful lemony zest. I’m envious of the steady flow of customers who clearly come to Joeyness regularly. What a treat. There are so many other things on the menu I want to try: tabouleh made with lentils instead of bulgur, beef kafta, Mediterranean bean salad and, of course, the “old country hummus” and babaghanoush.
 
The café is that winning combination of high-quality ingredients, great cooking and, as you sit and eat at one of the small tables, the good company of the people who run the place. As one Yelp fan put it:
 
Joeyness is owned and run by the most delightful chef who is CIA trained, who has taken his love for his profession and combined it with his love for his mother’s home cooking.
 
Bike peeps: The café is only a mile from the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee so it’s the perfect place (and menu, including fair trade coffee) for refueling before heading up Route 9 or River Road, or at the end of your ride before you head back into NYC. That’s my plan, anyway.
 
Joeyness
515 Main Street
Fort Lee, NJ 07024
201-461-2700

Dinner Tonight: Ratatouille Niçoise

Summer vegetables are just beginning to appear at the farmers’ market—red peppers, zucchini, onions—and so my thoughts turn to ratatouille niçoise. I brought back a recipe for the Provençal vegetable stew when I lived in France for a year right after high school—and I have been making it ever since. I’d faithfully copied down the recipe while a classmate prepared it for a gang of us one evening. We’d all met in the student pension where we lived, kitchen-less, but then our friend had moved out to a small apartment—the height of sophistication I thought at the time because she could have dinner parties and serve wine (cheap, Moroccan).
 
Ratatouille is a classic garden-to-table dish so typical of Mediterranean cooking: a few ingredients, big flavors and simplicity. In cooking circles over the years, I discover there’s been quite a bit of debate—and exchange of recipes—about the best method and perfect ingredients. Julia Child, in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, for instance, advocates cooking the vegetables separately before layering them in a casserole “to partake of a brief communal simmer.” What a beautiful way to put it—and I gladly follow a lot of Julia’s advice—but in the case of this rustic dish, I tend more toward the philosophy of one online commenter: “I do find it amusing that people are using recipes for ratatouille.”
 
Imagine stepping out into your kitchen garden in the middle of summer when vegetables are ripening faster than you can pick them: Gather an eggplant, a few zucchini, some onions, a couple of peppers, 4 or 5 tomatoes and a handful of herbs—whatever looks good. Stew them all up with garlic and olive oil—et voilà. Few of us have vegetable gardens in New York City, but as I selected peppers and zucchini and herbs at the farmers’ market (no local eggplant yet), I felt as close to the spirit of cooking from a Provençal potager as I could.
 
Over the years, I’ve made ratatouille hundreds of time for family and friends. I’ve made it on a Coleman stove camping on North Carolina’s Outer Banks and in massive triple quantities for potluck dinners. At first, I usually made it as a side dish, but more and more now we like it as a main course, eaten alone or with couscous or high-protein quinoa. It’s great with grilled fish. And if I’m in the mood for meat, I fill my plate with ratatouille and grill a really fabulous tasty sausage as a side. (This week it was Bilinski’s Apple Chardonnay.) These are the proportions I like best now—meat as an accent rather than the main deal.
 
Here’s the translated recipe, which I more or less follow:
 
Ratatouille Niçoise
Yield: about 8 cups
 
1 large eggplant
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, (less, if you prefer)
4 zucchini
2 cloves of garlic
1 lb ripe tomatoes
3 medium onions
2 green or red bell peppers
Salt, pepper
Fresh herbs, up to ¼ cup—basil, thyme, Italian parsley, depending on the flavors you like (I add French tarragon—a teaspoon dried or the leaves from a couple of fresh sprigs) and what’s available
 
1. Peel the eggplant and onion and coarsely chop all the vegetables (Keep onions separate.) Mince or finely chop the garlic. Chop the herbs.
 
2. Heat the olive oil in a large heavy saucepan (I use a 5½-quart Le Creuset French oven) over medium-high heat. Add onions first, then other vegetables, stirring to combine them (and so they don’t stick on the bottom).
 
3. Add garlic and herbs, plus the salt and pepper to taste.
 
 
4. Lower to medium heat, cover and cook for 45 minutes, stirring from time to time, especially at the beginning. Remove lid and cook for another 45 minutes so the liquid evaporates.
 
Ratatouille keeps well and tastes even better reheated. You can also eat it cold. 

It's All Greek to Me

When I visited Titan Foods in Astoria last week, I also stopped by United Brothers Fruit Market, a wonderful greengrocer (with great prices). Until you go, this will give you an authentic feel for the place. Really.

Cycling Superfuels à la Méditerranée

Roasted Vegetables
 
 “Five great foods that can help you ride better.” Now that's a promise; I need all the help I can get—this is definitely a clip-and-save, well, download-and-print, article for me. The five foods are salmon, linguini, red peppers, sweet potatoes and berries—easy to like—and right in tune with Mediterranean eating. Then I stumble on a dinner menu that manages to combine them all (well, almost) in one big superfuel feast. (Imagine the speed, imagine the power, I fantasize to myself.) The dishes—Roasted Gingered Salmon with Mango Salsa and Roasted Root Vegetables—have great Med cred: fish, lots of veggies and fruit, plenty of olive oil, lively citrus and cilantro flavors. 
 
The source of the recipes was unlikely but somehow fitting: I came across them on VeloNews.com last summer when I was following the Tour de France. They were developed by Leah Vande Velde (wife of pro cyclist Christian Vande Velde) to feed the pro Garmin bicycling team. The VeloNews editors had a few “lost in translation” moments when they converted a recipe meant to feed the entire team to one that would serve 4 regular humans. As the editors wrote in a note: “Maybe if we were more familiar with publishing recipes, we would have noticed that 22 ounces of olive oil and 25 ounces of brown sugar were a bit much for four pieces of salmon? Maybe.” That’s been corrected. But you still have to pick your own oven temperature for the salmon: 400°F seems to work fine.
 
I throw in red peppers and sweet potatoes (and whatever else is in season) with the root vegetables. Berries for dessert, and you have all the superfuels in one meal except for the linguini. That’s a big “except” for cyclists, I know, but luckily I’m not riding some insane number of miles all over France, so I can save the linguini for another day. 
 

 

Roasted root vegetables with brussels sprouts

Lazy Mediterraneanista

I THINK ONE REASON I LIKE THE MEDITERRANEAN DIET is how simple many of the dishes are. Just a few ingredients and a few simple steps and you have dinner.

LInguini with Roasted Tomatoes from Cucina Italiana

Linguine with Roasted Tomatoes is a perfect example. Add a salad, fruit for dessert and you’re done. So simple, so pretty—and delicious, too. (I usually substitute Niçoise olives, which I buy pitted at Zabar’s, but I’m curious about the Taggiasca olives and will keep looking for them.) 

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