Slow Cooker Ratatouille

March 20, 2017

 

I have a leetle while longer on my Draconian, post-surgery, low-fat diet, although I am going to cheat. Yeah, you heard me. I’m going cut it short by a [mere!] couple of days because the T. family leaves for a few sunny days in Mexico on Saturday. I am not going to forgo guacamole on a Mexican vacation–nope, nope, not going to happen!

In my defense, I’ve been such a good girl on my regime that I deserve a little slack. I have dearly missed cheese and my beloved bacon, but I did it. There were a couple of sad moments–like forsaking my share in Family Pizza Nite and waving my pork product goodbye at Sunday breakfast. And I had to sacrifice meals out, because who knows what fatty business is hiding in a restaurant meal? That stunk a bit, but I’m an adult, right? Adults can do this sacrifice stuff.

Thus, I cooked a lot this past month. Like all the time.

One of the first things I made when I started this low-fat business was a big batch of ratatouille. Whenever I make ratatouille, I have to smile, because it reminds me of Mama. Mama and I love ratatouille so much that we’d almost eat ourselves sick on it during the summer months. We’d spend afternoons chopping and dicing and bathing all of those gorgeous summer vegetables in fruity, beautiful olive oil. The result was heavenly, and we’d pile our plates full, adorned only by hefty slices of rustic country bread to sop up the juices. In my opinion, it’s the perfect summer repast.

Only problem this time was…it’s not summer. Tomatoes and zucchini and eggplant aren’t at their zenith right now, not by a long shot. The old tried-and-true preparation of ratatouille wasn’t going to cut it, because that old-school method requires peak-perfect produce. But dammit, I wanted my ratatouille! Life’s hard enough right now; don’t make me sacrifice my ratatouille craving, universe! You’ve snatched my cheese, absconded with my bacon and pilfered my butter–don’t mess with me on the ratatouille.

The solution to my dilemma? The slow cooker. I’d never thought of making ratatouille in the slow cooker because, to be honest, it goes against all of the conventional [French] wisdom about what a ratatouille should be. Made in the classic French fashion, each vegetable is prepared separately, with lots of olive oil and plenty of tender care–only at the very end of preparation are the vegetables allowed to play together in the finished ratatouille. The idea is that if you prepare it that way, each vegetable retains its own integrity.

How like the French–take what is seemingly a simple vegetable dish and gussy it up with lots of fanfare and time-intensive preparation. Thanks guys!

I must admit, that French version of ratatouille is stellar. It’s also really heavy in the olive oil department, since you’re sauteeing each batch of vegetables individually. Most classic preparations use at least a half-cup of olive oil and up to almost a full cup in some recipes I’ve seen. That’s a lot of olive oil.

And olive oil, while a “healthy” fat, is still fat. Which is something I’m not supposed to be eating much of at the moment.

That’s the beauty of this slow cooker version. It’s not fussy, it’s not fancy, and it uses just a fraction of the usual measures of olive oil. A fraction!

Also, because those vegetables spend quite some time in the cooker getting to know each other, the flavors meld together in a way that intensifies them–which is a good thing when you’re working with less than perfect vegetables. The long cooking time improves those lackluster winter specimens into something really quite lovely.

The first few platefuls of slow-cooker ratatouille I consumed in the fashion of my youth–accompanied only by a bare sprinkling of Parmiggiano-Reggiano cheese and a few fat slabs of toasted bread. It was pure nostalgia and I downed it with delight.

A couple of days later, though, I was particularly hungry and cranky and needed something a little more substantial for supper. I warmed up some leftover roasted potatoes from the day before, plopped them next to the ratatouille and then gilded the lily with a perfect, pristine fried egg. Oh-ho! That was a revelation. If you think a meal of ratatouille sounds boring, try it with the crispy potatoes and the egg. There’s nothing at all austere about that meal, I promise.

I can’t commit to using the slow cooker exclusively for my ratatouille–I imagine I’ll revert back to the classic version come summertime, but this preparation is delicious, too. It’s perfectly suited for lazy days, which I like, and it’s forgiving, which is definitely a bonus. It’s good on the waistline as well, and since I’ll be slithering into a swimsuit in a matter of days, I was grateful for that.

I may even sneak in another batch of this before we leave for warm beaches and cool water. It’ll make that first bowl of guacamole taste that much better, don’t you think?

 

 

Slow Cooker Ratatouille

slightly adapted from Ellie Krieger

serves 6

1 pound thin, small Japanese eggplants*, diced into 3/4-inch pieces

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

5 medium Roma tomatoes (about 1 pound) cut in large dice

2 medium zucchini, cut into 3/4-inch pieces

1 green, 1 red and 1 yellow/orange bell pepper, each cut into large dice

1 large onion, cut into half-moons

2 cups button mushrooms, halved

4 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

1 bay leaf

1/4 teaspoon hot pepper flakes (optional)

fresh basil leaves, sliced

freshly grated Parmesan cheese

 

Dice the eggplant, zucchini, peppers and onion and place in the slow cooker. Whisk the 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, olive oil and tomato paste together in a small bowl. Pour over the vegetables and toss. Add the garlic, thyme, red pepper flakes (if using) and bay leaf and stir. Cover and cook on low heat for 2 hours.

After two hours, remove the lid and stir in mushrooms. Replace lid and cook on low 2 more hours.

Uncover the pot and cook without a cover on low for 30 minutes to 1 hour more to allow excess liquid to cook down.

Adjust for seasoning. Top with fresh basil and grated Parmesan.

 

*Japanese eggplants are thinner and smaller and much less bitter than traditional eggplant. If you cannot find the Japanese version, use regular, in the same amount called for. However, you will need to address the bitterness issue. It’s easy to fix: place the sliced eggplant in a colander and sprinkle it generously with salt. Let it sit for 30 minutes and then rinse the salt off the eggplant, pat it dry and proceed accordingly. Viola! Bitterness is gone.

 

 

 

 

 

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Many thanks to all who sent well-wishes (and condolences) during my little ordeal last week. I am happy to say that after a few days of feeling like I’d been leveled by a bulldozer, I’m on the mend. It’s going a bit slower than I’d anticipated…gosh, do you think that could be age talking?

One thing that surprised me about this surgery was my lack of appetite when I came home from the hospital. After several days of fasting and dreaming about food, once I got home, I couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for eating. I figured I’d hit the house and immediately pillage the pantry, desperate to get something in my hollow belly, but the first couple of days home, I wanted little more than toast with jam and crackers. Weird.

Not to worry, though. After a few days of that nonsense, I was ready for something more substantial. A girl cannot live on toast and jam alone. Especially a girl who doesn’t even like jam.

I’d seen this recipe in a recent issue of Bon Appetit and thought it sounded like the perfect thing to soothe a cold or the winter blahs. I hadn’t anticipated making it after a surgical procedure, but life throws you curveballs, doesn’t it?

The recipe calls for dried kombu, which is not normally something I have in the house. As luck would have it, I’d ordered the dried kombu online several weeks ago, so I didn’t have to seek it out at Whole Foods. Me for the win! However, if you cannot find kombu (or just can’t be bothered), still make this recipe–the kombu adds just the barest touch of vegetal flavor. Your soup will be plenty delicious without it.

This soup is deceptively simple. It doesn’t really sound like much on paper, but there’s something about the broth that I found incredibly nourishing and soothing. I’m not overstating when I say that a bowl of this broth could cure just about any trouble in the world. It’s magic.

The one fussy bit of advice I have: it’s important to use sticky rice or sushi rice in this dish–the starch that kind of rice releases gives the broth a sweetness and body that other rice can’t accomplish.

Speaking of rice–there’s a lot of it in this soup. This isn’t some flimsy bowl of soup–it’s thick and hearty, a lot like Chinese congee. It’s almost porridge-like and really sticks to your ribs. It’s chicken soup that eats like a meal.

It was the perfect thing to fill my stomach after several days of light eating. I ate the whole batch over two days, all by myself, and I felt so much better for it. The first bowl or two, I took it easy on the sliced jalapenos and the chile oil, but as time went on (and I started to feel better), I ramped up the condiments. Do whatever you deem best.

This soup is meant to be eaten the first day you make it–it doesn’t keep well. The rice gets overly soft and loses its texture as it sits in the refrigerator. It wasn’t bad on the second day, but don’t stretch it beyond that. I think that first bowl was by far the best, but maybe that was the prolonged hunger talking.

If you want to make yourself (or someone else) feel loved and taken care of, get out your soup pot and make this recipe. You’ll be back on your feet in no time.

 

 

Vietnamese Chicken Soup with Rice

serves 4

adapted from the Elizabeth Street Cafe

 

3 skinless, boneless chicken thighs

1 4×4-inch piece dried kombu (I got mine online)

1 2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and crushed

3 star anise pods

1 2-inch cinnamon stick

2 whole cloves

4 cups chicken stock

1 cup glutinous (sticky) rice or sushi rice, rinsed

1 tablespoon fish sauce (I used 2 tablespoons)

1 teaspoon palm or brown sugar

1/2 cup finely diced carrot

1/2 cup finely diced celery

For garnish (as desired):

sliced scallion

sliced jalapeno and/or fresno pepper

chopped cilantro or basil

chile oil

 

Bring chicken, kombu, ginger, star anise, cinnamon, cloves, stock and 2 cups water to a simmer in a large pot over medium heat. Reduce heat to maintain a low simmer and cook until chicken is tender. Transfer chicken to a plate.

Strain broth through a fine-mesh sieve and discard solids. Return broth to pot and add rice, fish sauce and palm/brown sugar. Bring to a simmer and cook until the rice is very tender, 18-20 minutes. Halfway through the cooking time for the rice, add the celery and carrot to the pot. Once rice and vegetables are tender, shred chicken and add to pot. Add more fish sauce if desired.

Divide soup among bowls and top with garnishes of choice.

{ 4 comments }

A Box of Rocks

March 8, 2017

Two days after returning from my birthday weekend in Las Vegas, I got up off the couch to brush my teeth before bed and was hit by a sudden, stabbing pain in my chest.

“GARGGGG!” I hollered, clutching my chest and staggering into the study.

“Honey?” My husband looked up from the computer screen in alarm. “Honey? You okay?”

“ARRG GARAGGGG GARGG!” I replied eloquently, gesturing at my ribcage.

“Jesus. Okay, honey, can you talk? What’s going on?”

“DYING. GARGGGHHH!”

By then I was staggering to the living room, then the kitchen, the playroom–unable to keep still. For some reason, my legs wouldn’t stop moving. I had to keep moving.

“Can you tell me exactly where it hurts? Should I take you to the ER?”

By now, my husband knows not to fuck around when anything is wrong with me, because by now it’s a given: if anything’s wrong with me, it’s something weird as shit.

“Feels…like…heartattack,” I gasped. “Like GARRRGGGHHH been shot.”

My husband ran and got the blood pressure cuff and slapped it onto my arm, since that was the latest freakazoid medical scare we’d had. Reading: 148/111. Not a great reading but not nearly on the scale of last time, so probably not cardiac arrest.

My husband went to take the cuff off, but I was already moving again, careening upstairs to the bedroom, dragging the cuff behind me.

“Hey! Can you stay still a minute? I need to talk to you!”

“No, you fucker! I need to keep GARRGGGHHH moving. Sorry!”

“Okay.” He ran upstairs. By now, I was flopped on the bed, writhing around like the least erotic Whitesnake music video ever.

“Okay,” he panted. “Is it just your chest? Does the pain go anywhere else?”

I whacked my right flank violently.

“It radiates to the back?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Just the right or the whole back side?”

“TherightJesusfuckwhatisthisWHATisthisIamdying.”

“Okay, uh, I think I know what this is and you aren’t dying,” he reassured me. “But you are passing a gall stone. Pretty sure.”

“Not.Stone! Somebody…threw…javelin…through…chest.”

I am nothing if not dramatic.

“Look. Just, ummm, try to calm down a little, because here’s the good news, okay? You aren’t dying.”

“GAAAAARRR!”

“I know it feels like you are dying, but you aren’t. The stone just has to pass. That’s the good news.”

I glowered at him.

“Yeah. The bad news is that it can take an hour or two for it to do that.”

Death Stare.

He was right, though. 56 minutes later (yes, I timed it. When something hurts that bad, and you are guaranteed relief at some juncture, you watch every second tick by), the pain evaporated. Just went away, like it was never there. How can that be? How can you be near certain death and then bang! Everything’s alrighty?

The next morning, I knew it had happened, because my whole torso was sore, but other than that (and some lost sleep), I was no worse for wear.

“We should probably get you in to get that gall bladder looked at,” my husband said, pouring milk into his coffee.

“Yeah, sooner rather than later,” I snapped. “Because I don’t ever want to go through that again. I mean it. That was hideous.”

“Well, passing one like that doesn’t happen very often,” he assured me.

LIAR.

Liar, liar, pants on fire because wouldn’t you know it, right before midnight the very next night, I staggered around to his side of the bed and shook him violently.

“It’s happening again,” I hissed.

^^^Cue that whole opening scene all over again^^^

Except it only took 47 minutes to pass, this time. Lucky me.

***

“I’m off today,” he said. “Let’s take the girls to school and drive in and I’ll take a look at it, okay?”

“Okay, but I’m worried,” I said. “I mean this pain–I don’t EVER want to go through this kind of pain again and I’m afraid we’ll get in there and look around and see nothing. Like, there won’t be anything wrong with my gall bladder. So that means it’s something else, and we won’t know what it is, and it’s going to take forever to figure out, and I’ll keep having these things and…”

He smiled wryly at me. “Can we just go see if it IS your gall bladder and take it from there?”

Jerk.

***

My husband smears clear gel all over my winter-white belly and picks up the ultrasound wand.

“All right, let’s have a look-see, shall we?”

He has the wand pressed to my abdomen for maybe ten seconds before he huffs out a laugh. “Oh-ho, my goodness.”

“Are there any stones in there?” I say, trying to rubberneck around to the screen.

He starts chuckling in earnest. “Uh, yeah. Yeah, there are.” He turns the screen so I can get a better look.

I squint, making out a homely, gourd-shaped structure that looks to be filled with the entirety of Barbara Bush’s collection of pearl necklaces.

“Those aren’t pearls, are they…?” And then I start laughing. Hard.

“Cut it out! Quit laughing so hard, I’m trying to get a picture,” he says, but he’s laughing, too. “Jesus, honey, you’ve got a box-a-rocks in there!”

I reach out a fist to punch him but I miss.

He picks up the phone to call the surgeon. “Can I send my wife up there? She’s a walking box of rocks.”

***

I’m a special box of rocks because I have stones not only in my gall bladder, but in my bile duct, which means that I’m treated to two surgeries, not just one.

It takes a couple of days to get both surgeries completed, so I’m confined to a boring hospital bed and a grueling regimen of zero food and zero water. For 48 hours I get–whoopee!–ice chips.

48 hours is a long time to suck on ice chips and get stuck with needles and wait and wait and wait.

I shouldn’t complain.

After all, I got in for surgery pretty much immediately (at least the first one). It’s my fault my gall bladder is an overachiever and had to spread the wealth around.

But lemme tell you, 48 hours of forced fasting makes a girl eerily similar to a wolverine. I sat in my hospital bed, IV dripping away, sucking on ice chips, fantasizing about my first meal post-surgery.

Pizza, I think.

No wait. French fries–extra salty with lots of ketchup.

Could my husband smuggle me in that phenomenal spaghetti bolognese from that cute Italian place?

Egg rolls. Oh yeah. All of the egg rolls. Dumplings too.

The surgeon must have read my dirty, food-centered little mind, because as soon as I started plotting my feast, she knocked on my door and sat down next to me.

“Don’t even think about it,” she warned, narrowing her eyes.

I started to protest, but she waved me off. “Every patient I’ve ever had thinks they’ll get away scot-free after the surgery, but it doesn’t work that way.” She smiled in sympathy. “They think they’re in the all-clear and go order a giant burger and fries and then spend the next few days howling on the toilet with massive diarrhea.”

I begin to pout.

“You know what the gall bladder is for, don’t you?”

Is it bad form to give your surgeon the middle finger?

“Yeah, yeah, my husband told me. It’s where your body filters fat.”

“Right. And now you don’t have that filter any more. So most likely–in fact, it’s almost a certainty–you’re body isn’t going to be able to tolerate fatty foods for quite a while. In fact, it might never really be able to tolerate them well again.”

“EVER?!” Suckitysuck.

I must have looked really forlorn because she patted my knee reassuringly. “We’ll get to that when we come to it. For now though–and by “for now,” I mean the next four weeks–you are on a strict low-fat diet. Really strict. No fried foods, no creamy foods, no cheesy foods, no bacon, no sauces, limited dairy.”

“So you are basically saying that I am going to be able to eat ZERO fun things for the next month.”

“Yeah. Sorry.” She tried to look reassuring. “But then we can gradually add things in after that and see how you tolerate them. How does that sound?”

As foul as my mood was, I started to laugh. And then I told her all about my foiled birthday dinner and my Vegas weekend of craft cocktails and Kobe beef sliders and the return of Le Regime.

“Well, look at it this way,” she said. “Your body sort of took care of Le Regime on its own, didn’t it?”

I guess it did.

Damn, my body’s an asshole.

***

I’ll be a little scarce here for a bit, as I’m still recovering. I have a very unattractive drainage tube still attached to my stomach and painkillers are still very much my friend, but I am hoping to round the bend soon. Dang, this thing flattened me. Many thanks to those who sent well-wishes and positive thoughts and offers of help. And a huge shout-out to my wonderful, tolerant husband who has had to re-adjust his life this past week to wait on me and be Everyman around the house. Despite my bad attitude, I know I’m a lucky girl.

Pass the bran flakes.

 

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Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Pie

January 24, 2017