During this frenetic and festive holiday season, it is helpful to have a well-stocked pantry to quickly feed the family without sacrificing flavor or nutrition. If you have a can of plum tomatoes, garlic and olive oil you can cook up a tomato sauce in 15 minutes. If you have fresh or dried rosemary and balsamic vinegar, that 15-minute tomato sauce elevates into a herby infused wonderland. There is no need to call for pizza delivery, tomato and balsamic vinegar sauce mixed in with steaming bowl of penne pasta is quick, easy to make, and will warm you up on these brisk fall nights.
Tomato and balsamic vinegar sauce is a throwback and staple recipe of mine. I used to make it a lot during the early years of my marriage for my growing family. Some recipes are timeless and will never feel out-of-place no matter how many years have passed. Tomato and balsamic vinegar sauce is such a recipe. It is a special classic.
I discovered it in a cookbook of mine, Marcella’s Italian Kitchen by Marcella Hazandating back to 1986. Marcella Hazan is one of my cookbook authors who I attribute to teaching me about real Italian cooking. While I read and cooked through her cookbooks, I learned how simple, but not simplistic, Italian cooking is. Using only a few key ingredients and traditional techniques, it is easy to create a fresh tasting, delicious and satisfying meal. Of course there are those traditional meals that take hours to make, but most of the food I relied on, could be prepared in 30 – 40 minutes. Many of Marcella’s pasta recipes became family favorites that over time would develop into our own.
This recipe first caught my attention because of the added balsamic vinegar and rosemary was unlike any tomato sauce I had before. From this recipe I learned about adding vinegar to a sauce or stew to brighten up the flavor of the food. Up until that time I had only used vinegar for salad dressing. I loved the additional body and bright flavor the vinegar brought out in stews and sauces, and I continue to season with vinegar in several of my other recipes.
Risotto is food for the gods. It comes from humble origins as grains of rice but develops into creamy luxuriousness that transports you to a dreamy and calmer world. I feel like I am being extravagant when I eat risotto, which is odd because it is essentially a bowl of rice with stock and cheese, nothing fancy, but what a transformation. Say the word risotto, people start to swoon and get weak in the knees. They can only respond by repeating your own words with a subtle exclamation, “Oohhhh rissoootooo, I love rissoootooo.”
The first time I had risotto was many years ago in a very fancy restaurant, Equus at The Castle in Tarrytown NY. It is a 5 star establishment that we were the lucky recipients of a gift certificate to. For our first course my husband ordered risotto and I, not knowing anything about risotto, ordered pumpkin soup. Joe being the generous person that he is, offered me a taste of his risotto. To this day it is the best thing that I have ever eaten. Selfishly, I was tempted to grab his bowl and make a run for it. Fortunately I did not run away and Joe continued to share his risotto with me. My bowl of pumpkin soup was pushed aside as we sat together savoring each bite and melting into our chairs. I do not remember anything else about that meal, only the risotto.
It is hard to think about turning on the oven when it is so hot and humid outside. It is ironic to me that during the summer when the sun and the heat produces abundant amounts of fruits and vegetables, turning on a heat source to cook vegetables, or anything else for that matter, is the last thing on our mind. Fortunately fruits and vegetables can be eaten raw or cooked, hot or cold. During this crazy hot weather it is ideal to be thrifty and make one meal that can be used later for several additional meals.
Ratatouille is just that kind of dish. It can be used as a side dish with grilled meats or fish, a sauce to cook eggs or fish in, a sauce to mix with pasta or other grain for a vegetarian entrée. Ratatouille is so versatile it is worth turning on the oven once for the additional meals that can be served with it afterwards.
I was not a huge fan of ratatouille until I tried this recipe from Mark Bittman at cooking.nytimes.com. One reason being, I first learned to cook ratatouille by sautéing each vegetable separately then combining all the vegetables in a crock and bake until bubbly. No thanks. There can be at least five different vegetables and that is just too laborious for a summer’s day. Secondly, I like eggplant but I do not love it, so making something with eggplant is not my first idea or inspiration. Eggplant is a stunning and beautiful plant. The color is one of my favorites and why I haven’t dismissed it altogether. The flavor, by itself, just does not excite me. With this recipe the eggplant helps give ratatouille body developing on the classic pairing of eggplant and tomatoes. The fennel and fresh herbs makes the ratatouille fresh. Each ingredient adds a layer of flavor to create a medley of roasted vegetables that does not feel heavy.
Three aspects make this recipe stand out: fennel, chickpeas and the simple preparation. The fennel lightens the flavor of the roasted vegetables and the chickpeas turn it into a substantial meal when served as a vegetarian/vegan entrée. I also find the concentrated sweetness of the roasted red peppers gives the ratatouille its depth of flavor and body. Thanks to Mark Bittman, who was the Minimalist Chef for the Times after-all, the cooking process is simple and effective. There is no need to sauté each ingredient separately. Add a large handful of fresh herbs and the ratatouille will be bright like the beautiful summer day you are experiencing.
Turn on the oven for one hour and you will have created a mixed vegetable cornucopia that you can enjoy, for two to three additional meals. Fennel and chickpea ratatouille can be a vegetable side dish, (tonight I am serving my ratatouille with lamb burgers,) or serve ratatouille as a sauce for pasta or mixed with your favorite grain. You can serve this ratatouille on grilled toasts or make an open face sandwich by adding cheese and putting it under the broiler for lunch or an appetizer. Add a fried egg to the ratatouille and you have a great breakfast or light dinner. No recipe needed for the additional meals, just imagine and go. The possibilities are endless.
Fennel and Chickpea Ratatouille is an easy meal to prepare that can be served for any meal of the day. Serve this dish as a main course vegan entree with pasta or grains. Serve as a side dish with any grilled meats or cook as a sauce to cook fish and eggs with. Spread this ratatouille on toast for an easy lunch or quick appetizer. There are so many options for easy meals at any time of the day.
This recipe is very slightly adapted from Mark Bittman' s Chickpea and Fennel Ratatouille from New York Times Cooking.
Fennel and Chickpea Ratatouille
1 medium eggplant, 1 lb or less
2 medium zucchini, about 1 lb
1 pound of plum (Roma) tomatoes
2 red and/or yellow sweet bell peppers
1 fennel bulb
5 garlic cloves, peeled and cut in half (green germ removed)
1/4 cup (about 60ml) olive oil
1 tea Kosher salt
3 cups cooked chickpeas (2 15oz cans of cooked chickpeas, about 1 lb, or 487g))
2 Tbl minced fresh herbs such as rosemary with thyme or lemon thyme, or basil and parsley. If you do not have fresh herbs you can use 1 1/2 tea of dried Herbs De Provence.
You will need a large roasting pan, I used 12" x 17" x 2" pan. (30.5cm x 43cm x 5cm)
Pre- heat the oven to 425 degrees F/ 220 degrees C/ Gas Mark 7
Cut each vegetable into similar size pieces, about one inch. There is no need to peel the eggplant, do so if it is your preference. Combine all of the chopped vegetables and garlic in a large roasting pan. If you do not have a pan large enough you can use two separate pans, like rimmed baking sheets, but your cooking time might change. Add the salt and olive oil and mix until evenly combined. (If you are using dried herbs add them now.)
Bake the vegetables in the oven for 40 minutes. Add the chickpeas to the vegetables and fresh rosemary, if using. Bake for an additional 10 minutes or until all the vegetables are evenly cooked through and there is some browning in the pan. Once the vegetables are cooked take the pan out of the oven and mix in any reserved fresh herbs you are planning on using.
Serve hot or room temperature.
There are a lot of vegetables in this recipe and a large roasting pan is perfect for the job. You can use a rimmed baking sheet and divide the vegetables in half and bake on two sheets. You just might need more time roasting the vegetables.
Feel free to substitute any vegetable with your favorite summer vegetables, just keep the sizes of the chopped pieces similar. Ratatouille is traditionally tomato based vegetable "stew" that is easily adapted to what you have on hand.