This summer, just like last year, has been different from the usual for me and my family. In June we lost my Dad, and almost exactly one year before we lost my mom. Everything is different now.
Both this summer and last, I spent much of the spring and the first half or more of summer in the western suburbs of Chicago where my parents lived for the last 6 years of their lives, and two of my siblings still live. I’m so grateful that my life allows me space and time to go to the midwest and be with my family – with my parents before and after their deaths and my siblings, who are so dear to me and we share so much.
But being away from home for such big chunks of time during the most beautiful season in Oregon is somewhat disorienting and makes me a little wistful. Since I got home in the latter part of July, we’ve been going full steam ahead – I’ve been catching up on all that work I missed, hosting a steady stream of visitors from other parts of the country, throwing our big winery Summer Celebration, and you know, the list goes on.
Yesterday was a welcome respite from all of that and I took advantage of the quiet and did some summer slow cooking.
There is little that is more therapeutic for me than spending an afternoon in my kitchen cooking, just because. Sometimes I’m on deadline to get a dozen or more dishes made, perfected and paired with our wine club wines, sometimes I’m racing the clock to get a multi-course dinner made and clean up the house before guests arrive at the door….we all know that story. But sometimes I get to just go in the kitchen and cook whatever strikes my fancy at my own leisurely pace.
I also find that the most therapeutic cooking is any that is a process. A series of steps which must be methodically followed to get the best results. This is the spirit behind the much revered “slow food” movement. Patiently working through each step, not looking for a shortcut, to coax the best and most intriguing flavors out of the ingredients. And then sitting down to enjoy the resulting meal with family, friends, bottles of wine and great conversation. The very opposite of fast food.
Inspired by a trip to my local farm stand, I decided that a perfectly simple and classic batch of ratatouille was in order. Ratatouille is a dish from the south of France that celebrates the perfect late summer produce – tomatoes, summer squash, eggplant, peppers, onion, and herbs. Like most comfort food, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Ratatouille can actually be thrown together pretty quickly, and I’ve made it in both the oven and the slow cooker, but I find my favorite way is sauteeing each vegetable addition on top of the stove, and enjoying all the beautiful aromas as you go. In total it takes about an hour, but like many dishes, it appreciates a little rest afterward – of an hour or a day – to really come together and shine.
I served this to my family alongside a spatchcocked grilled chicken and a bottle of very good Pinot noir. It was summer Sunday dining at it’s finest.
- 1 medium or 2 small eggplant, cut into 1/2 inch dice
- 4 tablesoons olive oil, divided, plus more to taste
- 2 medium purple onions, cut into 1/2 inch dice
- 6 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1/2 bunch basil and several stems of fresh thyme, tied in a bouquet with kitchen twine
- 1/2 teaspoon aleppo peppper (or a healthy pinch of red pepper flakes)
- 2 sweet peppers, cut into 1/2 inch dice
- 3 medium summer squash or zuchinni (or a mix), cut into 1/2 inch dice
- 3 ripe tomatoes, cut into 1/2 inch dice
- Salt to taste
- 6 or 8 fresh basil leaves chopped, for garnish
- Place a colander in the sink. Put the eggplant cubes in the colander and toss with 1 teaspoon salt. Let rest for about 20 minutes
- Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot. Pat the eggplant dry and add it to the pan. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until golden. If the eggplant sticks to the bottom of the pan, add a bit more oil. Once it's golden, remove the eggplant and set aside.
- In the same pot, pour in 2 more tablespoons of olive oil. Add onions and cook for about 10 minutes until soft and translucent. Add the garlic, the herb bouquet, aleppo pepper and a pinch of salt. Stir everything together.
- Cook for 5 minutes, then stir in the peppers. Cook for abouther 5 to 8 minutes and then stir in the squash. Cook for a few more minutes, then stir in the tomatoes.
- Cook for 10 minutes longer, then stir the eggplant back in. Cook for 15 minutes more, until all the vegetables are soft.
- Remove the bouquest of herbs and adjust the seasoning with salt. Stir in the chopped basil leaves and drizzle some extra virgin olive oil over the top, if you like.
- Serve warm or at room temperature.