One kid's adventures in gastronomy

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The Jude Abides

Poor Mama. She’s had a lot of “Misses” of late and has had to resort to her backup supply of purees and other mashed foods. Maybe she’s letting me graze too much during the day on things like fruit, cheese, and organic cereals. Or maybe I’m just being a picky baby.

But this weekend she made something that surprised even me. Eggplant has been hit or miss. “Baby” ganoush—miss. Ratatouille—hit. Last night she sliced a few eggplants, sprayed them with olive oil, and grilled them inside (even though it was gorgeous outside). While the slices cooked, she made a pesto to spread on them, telling me she’d have to substitute almonds for the pine nuts she was sure she had. She then made a filling with shredded mozzarella, tomato sauce, golden raisins, and some of the cooked eggplant chopped up. (She also cut up some kalamata olives for herself and me, for “on the side,” since Papa does not like them one bit.) She placed a bit of filling on one end of each slice of eggplant, rolled it up, and put each roll in a baking dish that had a little bit of sauce in it. Then she topped it all with more sauce, sprinkled more cheese over it, then baked it until the cheese turned golden. On the side, she made orzo, then grilled a pork chop for Papa.

I thought the eggplant was tender and flavorful, and the orzo was so much more pleasing in texture than the brown rice Mama usually serves. Even Papa, who’s not always a fan of eggplant either, enjoyed it (though he said the olives threatened to “contaminate” the whole dish). What was even more of a surprise was that I ate the leftovers for lunch today, and I usually cannot abide leftovers. Live and learn.

Love, Jude

Mama’s Pesto
(even Mama couldn’t come up with a more approximate recipe for this one—she just keeps tasting it until she gets it right)

[UPDATE: Mama finally sat down and drew up a recipe, which you can find here.]

About 1 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves, rinsed and torn or cut chiffonade
A couple tablespoons pine nuts or other favorite nut, toasted or not
A couple tablespoons freshly grated parmesan cheese
Juice of half a lemon, or so
1 clove garlic, roughly chopped (or more if you really like garlic)
Salt and pepper, to taste
Good extra-virgin olive oil, as needed

Place all the ingredients in a food processor and pulse or blend until a paste forms. Stream in enough olive oil to give it body. The pesto should be intensely flavored, so that a little goes a long way. Adjust the tastes as you go along—you can always add more, but you can’t take away.

Note: Mama advises against toasting the nuts if you’re going to be baking the pesto, as in the eggplant dish, above. She also says that you don’t have to use basil—spinach, parsley, and arugula all work just as well.


A ratatouille by any other name…

Uncle Norman sent Mama a link for his favorite winter dish, which happened to be called “Dad’s Ratatouille.” Mama thought it sounded good and that I might like it too.

Each version of ratatouille Mama’s ever made is time consuming. Her first attempt, back in the ’90s, has a notation in the margin of her cookbook: “Takes more than an hour to chop everything.” While you don’t have to cook each vegetable separately, as in this recipe, it does help to ensure each one is thoroughly cooked. This version had Mama sautéing each vegetable in olive oil over medium-high heat, creating a nice char, before adding it to the Dutch oven lined with sweating onions and garlic. After filling the house with varying amounts of smoke, and putting the whole thing in the oven, she asked Uncle Norman, “Can you explain to me why it is I’m making ratatouille in the middle of winter?” His response: “You’ll know when you taste it.”

You might be wondering, as I was, what ratatouille is. Mama calls it is “a celebration of summer vegetables.” It’s often considered a peasant dish, and in southern France is most certainly eaten as an appetizer or side dish, warm or cold. (Mama, however, always eats it as a main dish, serving it over brown rice or quinoa.) A hunk of crusty bread goes a long way, too. What makes it so succulent and stewy is the addition of slow-cooked eggplant (which we like to call aubergine) and tomatoes, but other key ingredients include summer squash, peppers, and fresh herbs. Hence, Mama’s question to Uncle Norman.

Did I mention I don’t like tomatoes, not even spaghetti sauce?

But this conversation got Mama thinking…about ways to make an equally good winter version of ratatouille. Why not roast butternut and acorn squash to take the place of the summer varieties… maybe add some cremini and shiitake mushrooms to take the place of the eggplant (although it wouldn’t be so terrible to keep the eggplant—it’s ubiquitous year-round). And instead of fresh tomatoes (or regular ol’ canned tomatoes, as she used here), maybe a can of fire-roasted tomatoes. Or forget the tomatoes and use V-8 instead of stock, as she did here, or maybe an oaky red wine (not that I would know). Peppers—that other most ubiquitous of veggies—should most certainly be organic (always), and roasted, too. But why use peppers at all? Peppers add a sweetness, so why not substitute beets, especially golden ones in addition to red? I love beets! And while we’re at it, throw in some turnips, carrots, and sweet potatoes! Leeks! Brussels sprouts! Cabbage! All roasted with savory and sage! Mama also mused that instead of frying the veggies, she could make it easy on herself and roast them at a high heat, say 450°. If you’re a fan of grilling, as Mama is, try that (yes, even in the winter, as my GeeGee does, Carharts and all).

And the verdict? It was delicious. The vegetables were soft, and the flavors melded so I didn’t even taste the tomatoes or the peppers. It was creamy and practically spreadable, and I loved it with the brown rice. I didn’t really care for the skin of the eggplant, though, and neither did Mama, so she would definitely peel it off the next time (or get a better char on it). I surprised myself by having 3 helpings, it was that good. I had to fight off Papa for the leftovers. (Luckily, I always win such a showdown.) Mama declared it one of the better incarnations she’s made; she attributed it to the rosemary. And though she didn’t mind reducing the liquid after baking the ratatouille, she wasn’t sure it was really necessary. She’s keen to try her winter version, though, so stay tuned.

I can hardly wait…unless I decide I no longer like vegetables.

Love, Jude

Ratatouille so good, I had to ditch the spoon and just dig in.