Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Illustrated Guide to Ratatouille

I first tried ratatouille in the house of my host family while studying in Aix-en-Provence during my senior year of college.  I wish I could tell you some lovely story about this experience -- how we went to the market each week, how my French mother taught me to pick the best produce, how we made meals together, how much I loved having dinner with my host family every night while practicing French, and how I was knocked off my feet by my first taste of ratatouille.

But that is not my story.  I ended up with a very young couple who didn't want to have anything to do with me.  If they were my real parents, they would have given birth to me when they were 7 years old.  They were happy to provide me with room and board (for which they were well paid), but it was quickly becoming clear that my hanging out in the kitchen, trying to help with dishes, and asking all sorts of questions was frustrating to them.  What did we do during dinner?  We watched TV.  Every single night.  I vividly remember the surreal experience of watching Simpsons and South Park in French.  

My first ratatouille was about the same quality as the rest of my experience of living with my host family.  I had to wonder why was this dish of zucchini boiled in tomato sauce so famous.  And even back then, I couldn't help trying to fix it in my head.  "If only we could brown those zucchini first..." I thought to myself.

As I later discovered, there are as many versions of ratatouille as cooks in Provence, and some of those recipes are really stunning.  But they all boil down to two types: put everything in a pot and cook it all together vs. cook each ingredient separately to perfection and only then combine them all.  I am definitely the second type of ratatouille cook.  As Julia Child said, the best ratatouille is neither quick nor easy, but it's worth the effort.

Don't worry about the exact proportions or about missing one of the ingredients.  The only requirements (at least to me) are onions, eggplants (or zucchini or summer squash), and tomatoes.  Ideally, I like to add all sorts of summer squash, sweet peppers, garlic, rosemary, sage, thyme, and oregano, but I'll take what I can get at the market.

You can cut your vegetables into all sorts of shapes as long as they are even so that they cook the same amount of time.  Sometimes I slice the veggies (like in the pictures below) and sometimes I dice (cut them into cubes).  Whichever way you choose, aim for 1/2 inch thickness.  Since zucchini and eggplants cook the best when salted first (to remove extra liquid), it is most practical to slice them lengthwise, salt, dry, and then dice if you want smaller pieces of vegetables.

The only reason to use fresh tomatoes in this dish is if they are fabulous.  It is a lot more work, since you'll have to blanch them, peel them and seed them, so don't waste your energy if you are working with styrofoam.  Just use canned.  I really like Muir Glen and Hunt's brands.


2 medium eggplants (Round Sicilian eggplant is my favorite type to use)
2 medium summer squash (such as zucchini, yellow squash, cousa, etc)
2 large tomatoes (or about 14 oz good diced canned tomatoes)
1 large yellow onion, 1/2 inch dice
1 red, orange, or yellow pepper, 1/2 inch dice
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 Tbsp minced fresh sturdy herbs (such as rosemary, sage, savory, thyme, oregano)
1/2 cup olive oil (or as needed)
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Chopped fresh basil or parsley for serving (optional)

Veggie prep

Peel the eggplants and cut them into 1/2 inch thick slices that are roughly 1.5 inches wide and 1.5 inches long.  Cut the squash into 1/2 inch thick semi-circles.  Lay the eggplants and squash out on paper towels in a single layer.  Sprinkle generously with kosher or sea salt, toss to coat both sides and spread out in a single layer.  Let sit for 30 minutes.

If using fresh tomatoes, submerge them into boiling water for exactly 10 seconds.  Using a paring knife, make a cross on the bottom of each tomato and peel.  The skin will come right off, so use a paring knife or your hands, not a peeler.

Cut each tomato through the equator and dig out as many seeds as you can.

Core the tomatoes and cut into 1 inch pieces.  Chop onions, peppers, garlic, and herbs.

Press a layer of paper towels onto eggplants and squash to dry them.

Browning eggplants and squash

Set a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat.  Any skillet is fine as long as it cooks evenly.  To speed things up, I sometimes use 2 skillets.  Add 2 Tbsp olive oil.  When hot, add eggplants and squash in a single layer (whatever fits).  Brown on one side, flip, and brown on the other side.  Remove to a plate lined with a paper towel to absorb oil.  Repeat with the rest of eggplants and squash adding oil as necessary to keep them browning nicely.  Don't be surprised that it takes a lot of oil.  Feel free to stack veggies and paper towels on the same plate.  They don't need to be in one layer after they are browned.

Assembling the stew
You can use any heavy pot or deep skillet as long as it cooks evenly and is not seasoned cast-iron (you can't put acidic ingredients, like tomatoes, into it).  Enamel covered cast-iron is a wonderful choice and so is stainless steel with aluminum or copper core.

Set the pot over medium-low heat.  Add 2 Tbsp olive oil, onions, peppers, and a generous pinch of salt.  Cook stirring occasionally until onions are translucent and tender, 12-15 minutes.  Add garlic and herbs and cook stirring until fragrant, about 1 minute.

Add tomatoes, turn up the heat and bring to a simmer.  Turn the heat back down and simmer gently until tomato juices thicken, 10-15 minutes.

Stir in eggplants and squash and bring back to a simmer.  Simmer gently for 15 minutes.  Take off heat and let sit for at least an hour before serving.  Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and balsamic vinegar.

Ratatouille tastes even better the next day, either reheated or cold.  I personally like it cold the best, topped with fresh basil.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The claw grip video

Yes, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred did backwards and in high heels, but pair her up with a bad partner and I doubt there'd be much to see.  I used to dance ballroom and Latin in college.  Just for fun, I would sometimes try to learn how to lead, and let me tell you -- it's hard.  Sure the follower gets all the intricate footwork, but it's the leader's job to lead her into all these moves and to make her look beautiful and elegant while doing them.  What does that have to do with knife skills?  Everything!

When you watch professional chefs chop, their hands do a lovely dance that is not that different from tango.  The knife hand is the one that gets all the attention.  I bet that's what you are looking at when you watch food TV.  That's Ginger.  It's showy and flashy, but that's not where the speed and accuracy comes from.  It comes from the guiding hand.  It seems like it just sits there on the vegetable doing nothing.  But look closer and you'll see how complex its job is.  It holds the vegetable in place and leans against the knife blade telling it where to land.  All the knife hand has to do is go up and down in a rhythmic pattern and somehow the slices come out all even.  

How does the guiding hand manage to produce slices that can be as thin as paper?  Just like Fred did -- full body contact.  If you are thinking that it's easier to be pressed against another warm body than a sharp knife, think again.  Both are hard.  In one case, you feel like you are going to trip each other and fall; in another, like you'll chop your fingers off.  Neither usually happens, and if you conquer your fear, you'll be amazed how much your dancing or chopping will improve.

Here is a video I just made of how to use the claw grip correctly.  It will help you with slicing and dicing absolutely everything -- from an onion to bok choi.  

Sept 6, 2011 update:  I have recently made a new and improved claw grip video, which I put into this post instead of the original video.

p.s. by the way, I don't think I ever went through as many band aids whiles learning to chop as while learning to dance.  No, it wasn't from my partner stepping on me.  It was from excruciatingly painful high heels.  

Monday, July 19, 2010

"Japanese" Ginger Sesame Miso Dressing

What on earth is this?  It's a Ginger Sesame Miso salad dressing.  If you've taken a class with me, you know about my obsession with vinaigrettes and all forms of dressings that can be used on vegetables.  I sneak a vinaigrette into my Sauce and the City class, the Orgasmic Vegetables class, and sometimes even the One Fish, Two Fish class.  The sauce class students are always surprised.  "You mean vinaigrette is a sauce?" they ask.  Yes! In fact, I think it's the easiest and most versatile sauce to have under your belt.

While I can speak with confidence about vinaigrettes in European cooking, I have absolutely no authority or background to speak about the dressing in the picture, except that it's been my obsession for the past couple of months.  I worry about calling this dressing "Japanese" for fear that it's as Japanese as Russian dressing is Russian.  But it was inspired by a salad dressing you often get in Japanese restaurants in the US -- the creamy beige one called "ginger dressing."  I couldn't find a recipe for it anywhere, so I kept messing with various ingredients until I came up with something similar.  The breakthrough came when I replaced sesame seed oil with toasted sesame seeds.  I don't have a sesame seed grinder that I hear every Japanese household owns, but the immersion blender that I use to make this dressing integrates the seeds right in and makes a nice creamy mixture.

For miso, I use the white type (Shiro miso) since that's what I always have in my fridge, but I don't see any harm in using other types.  The other parts are variable.  For the acidic ingredient, I've used everything from rice wine vinegar, to lemon juice, to lime juice.  They were all good.  Lime juice might be my favorite.  For oil, I use canola since it's neutral in taste (olive oil might be out of place here).  Sometimes I add a dash of Shoyu (Japanese style soy sauce).  Sometimes a pinch of sugar.  You can always taste and adjust to your liking.

You will need some form of blender for this dressing.  A food processor won't work.  The wonderful thing about an immersion blender is that it can handle small quantities in a 2 cup Pyrex measuring cup or a container of similar shape.  If you plan to use a regular blender, you might need to increase the quantities significantly.

What can you serve this dressing on?  I love it on almost any raw vegetable.  Some nice combinations that I've done before were
  • julienned daikon radish, sectioned oranges, cilantro
  • chiffonade (1/8 inch wide ribbons) of baby bok choi, julienned red pepper, carrots and scallions, chopped cashews
  • I also like mixing it with cold noodles.  For today's lunch, I threw some turnip greens into a pot with noodles during the last 30 seconds of cooking, drained, rinsed with cold water, mixed with the dressing and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Ginger Sesame Miso Dressing

Makes about 1/2 cup

1-2 inch knob of ginger, peeled and minced (depending on how much you like ginger)
2 Tbsp toasted white sesame seeds (you can buy them already toasted)
2 Tbsp miso paste (I use shiro or white miso)
2 Tbsp rice wine vinegar (or lemon or lime juice)
1/4 cup canola oil

Put all ingredients into a 2 cup glass measuring cup and puree with an immersion blender until smooth. Taste and adjust the balance with Shoyu (if you need more salt), sugar, and vinegar (or citrus juice). If the dressing is too strong for your taste, blend in more oil.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Do you have a favorite farmer at your market?  Sure, I buy stuff from 3-4 farms, but there is one that is particularly near and dear to my heart: Hmong Farms from Lunenburg, MA.  The farmer who comes to the market doesn't speak any English, but his produce speaks for itself.  It's just beautiful. And what's so cool is that he grows some unusual crops.  I am still dreaming about a huge bunch of absolutely stunning sorrel I got from him last year.

The problem is that I don't always know exactly what I am buying, which poses a bit of a problem if I want to tell you about it.  At the last farmers' market, I saw a bundle of the most beautiful purple tinged leaves.  I was sure they'd be good tossed in a hot skillet with a little garlic, ginger, and soy sauce.  But what are they called?  I felt like my 3 year old daughter, who can't rest until she finds out what something is called.  It doesn't really matter if you tell her that something is Winnie the Pooh, an immersion circulator, or a USB port.  The important thing is that it has a name.  As soon as we tell Sammy what something is called, she breaths a sigh of relief and says "Oh, I see -- immersion circulator," as if she knew it all along, but just needed a reminder.

I asked the farmer what the purple green leaves were.  He pointed me at the sign that said "$2.50."  I started asking other shoppers, but none of the Americans could help me.  Finally, one Chinese woman said, she knew what it was in Chinese, but not in English.  Eventually, the farmer understood that I wanted to find out the name and gave me a piece of paper with a recipe for Amaranth.  "But isn't this other one Amaranth?" I asked him pointed to a different leafy green?  He pointed to the purple one and said "This too."  When I got home and googled for Amaranth, I found out that its leaves can come in different colors (kind of like Swiss Chard).

How to clean and prep Amaranth

Remove and discard stems.  Wash and dry the leaves in a salad spinner.  If not using right away, wrap in a dry towel, place in a plastic bag, seal, and store in the fridge until needed.  If it is in good shape, it will last as long as a week.

How to cook Amaranth

Set a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add 1 Tbsp canola oil (or fat of your choice).  When hot, add 2 minced garlic cloves, and 1 tsp minced ginger.  Cook until aromatic, but not colored, 15-30 seconds.  Add a large bunch of amaranth leaves and cook stirring with tongs until wilted.  If they don't all fit in the skillet right away, wait for some leaves to wilt before adding more.  Season with soy sauce or salt to taste and serve.

Another idea is to use amaranth leaves as wrappers.  Since the leaves are large and thin, they work great for quick cooking proteins, like small pieces of marinated skirt steak or fish.  You'll need wooden toothpicks to hold these bundles together.  Rub the outside with a little canola oil and grill or pan sear.  Goes really well with a dipping sauce of lime juice, ginger, garlic, soy, and chillies.  Since this is a somewhat labor intensive preparation, it's best to serve it as an appetizer.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Grilled pizza that actually tastes good

Grilled pizza is an unavoidable summer phenomenon.  In theory, it makes perfect sense.  Pizza is fun, casual, and a good vehicle for the lovely summer produce.  Running the oven at 500F for an hour in the summer sounds like hell.  Why not grill?  There is no cooking method more beloved by us Americans than grilling, and we feel that everything from steak to pineapple is better when it's cooked over exposed flames.

The problem is that I've never had a good grilled pizza -- not in a restaurant, not at home.  What you usually end up with is burnt bottom, semi-cooked dough, and lukewarm toppings.  Could I find a way to make this summer classic actually taste good?  Yikes, I sound like Cook's Illustrated.

There is nothing like a broken oven to make you try, and after a few attempts, I got pizza as good as the one from the oven. I used my favorite pizza dough recipe from Rose Beranbaum's The Bread Bible.  I follow her recipe for the dough, but I changed the oven baking procedure from the original recipe and use a variation on it for the grill as well.  I agree with Beranbaum about annoying grittiness of cornmeal or semolina.  To avoid this, she uses a pizza pan.  I don't have one, and found that parchment paper works really well instead.  For the grill, I replace parchment paper with foil.

Problem #1: Burnt bottom
The solution to the burnt bottom was to drop the heat.  A lot.  If you've ever made a good pizza in the oven, you know that you need to crank the heat to as high as possible and use a pizza stone for a boost of heat.  But oven heat is indirect, which is much more gentle than direct heat of the grill or stove top.  Think about it this way.  If you were to touch boiling water (212F) for 5 seconds, you'd get a very serious burn.  Kids, don't try that at home.  But if you were to stick your hand into 212F oven for even 15 seconds, you'd feel warm and cozy and emerge completely unharmed.  That's because a liquid or an object transfers heat a lot faster than air.  I tried every temperature setting on my gas Weber grill and only the lowest gave me good results -- fabulously crisp crust that wasn't burnt.

Problem #2: Undercooked top
The other problem was that the grill cooking was not nearly as even as oven cooking.  I got a lot of heat from the bottom, but very little on top of the pizza.  By the time the bottom was in good shape, the top was still way too pale.  To solve this problem, I had to grill the dough on both sides before topping the pizza.

Just like with toppings for any pizza, remember that less is more.  Cut everything very thin and don't overload your pie.  The one in the picture uses caramelized onions as the "sauce," and has some thinly sliced fresh tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella.

Here is the grilling procedure in detail

Make the pizza dough and let it rise until doubled.  You can do it up to 3 days in advance and keep it in the fridge.

Lay a piece of foil on a rimless cookie sheet (or inverted shallow baking sheet). Get the dough out of the cup with an oiled hand. With the other hand, pour the oil remaining in the cup onto the foil. Spread it around with your free hand in a large circle (10 inches in diameter). Place the dough on the oiled foil and press it down gently with your hands to deflate it and form it into a disk 5 inches in diameter. With oiled palms of your hands, gently stretch the pizza dough into a circle 10-11 inches in diameter. It should be very thin, but be careful not to rip it. If it does rip, however, don't panic. Just smoosh it back together where it rips.  Don't worry if it's not round.  Oval pizza tastes just as good.  Soak up excess oil that ends up on the foil next to the edges of pizza.

Preheat the grill to low and have your toppings ready.  Slide the foil with dough onto the grill, cover and cook until just a hint of browning develops, about 90 seconds.

Flip the foil with dough so that the dough touches the grill directly.  It will be easy because the dough should get conveniently stuck to the foil at this point.  Cover the grill and cook 1-2 minutes or until you see golden brown grill marks.

Flip the whole thing again so that the dough is sitting on the foil again.  Add your sauce and toppings.  Cover the grill and cook until the bottom is crisp and brown and the cheese is melted, 4-6 minutes.

Slide the foil back onto the cookie sheet and let sit for a minute.  Carefully, lift the pizza of the foil and onto a cutting board.  It might stick to foil a little, but if you lift one corner of dough, you will be able to peel the foil from under the pizza.  Serve immediately.