April 21, 2005
The quality and selection of produce is often a good criterion by which to judge a grocery store and its general attractiveness/cleanliness, because it's the first thing to look terrible if it's not carefully taken care of. A bit like peeking at the state of somebody's fingernails -- not that I actually do this and draw any conclusion, oh no, really no, I wouldn't.
And since the produce aisle is often placed right at the entrance, it can serve as a warning, much like the stereotypical skull in the first chamber of an ancient, abandoned temple ("proceed with caution, there are dead vegetables in here!"). I have on occasion been so efficiently put off by the depressing sight in an unknown supermarché, that I have turned my heels and walked out before I even passed the weighing scales. How anyone can treat innocent salads with such cruelty is beyond me.
Luckily my own corner grocery store, which was completely redone into a shinier version of its old self about a year ago, maintains a satisfactory produce aisle. Above average is how I would qualify it: I've seen better, but I've seen far, far worse, and it's good enough for my needs when I haven't had the time or the opportunity or the energy to go to the market or the produce store.
One smart thing I have noticed the other day is that they sell little veggie bundles, pre-selected assortments that allow you to make a pot-au-feu (carrots, leeks, onion, turnip, thyme and bay leaf -- meat sold separately!) or a ratatouille (eggplant, zucchini, onions, tomatoes and thyme).
I was initially a little suspicious -- bundles are a widely-used strategy to do away with what wouldn't otherwise sell -- but upon inspection it all looked very fresh. I also had my reservations about the packaging (a plastic crate in shrink wrap) but then I reflected that if you're going to buy all these vegetables separately, each kind will have to be put in a separate plastic bag for weighing, so it probably doesn't make much of a difference. And can you believe that for the whole length of this heated self-debate, I didn't even think to check the price? That's what gets me every time, all these issues to consider that have so much more significance than mundane financial questions.
So I got one of each, and I have to admit that it is mighty convenient for the speedy shopper -- if you don't lose yourself in the throes of culinary doubt and ecological considerations, that is. And so with all the ingredients for a nice ratatouille in my kitchen, I decided to branch off from the regular stovetop cooking method and make an oven-baked ratatouille. I also ignored the dried thyme that was provided in my bundle and used fresh thyme and rosemary because I had it on hand.
And wow, the results largely surpassed my expectations. In my experience, ratatouilles (and I'm not talking about the method in which you cook every vegetable separately, which certainly yields good results but is a little too time-consuming for everyday cooking) run the risk of ending up mushy from excessive stirring, the eggplant a little bitter and spongy and the whole thing somewhat waterlogged. No such thing here: my oven ratatouille turned out delightfully tasty, almost sweet with a wonderful roasted flavor, the texture so rich and pleasing it almost felt like you were eating dessert -- and you know how I feel about desserts.
As with any ratatouille, it tasted even better the next day and the day after that, so it's an ideal make-ahead dish. It works equally well hot, at room temperature or cold, and was just the perfect lunch to bring into the office with a couple of poached eggs that you break with your fork, the velvety yolk melding in with the juicy vegetables.
Ratatouille Confite au Four
- 2 onions
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 eggplant (if you want to make the traditional ratatouille from Nice, hold the eggplant)
- 1 zucchini
- 2 green peppers
- 8 small tomatoes
- 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme
- olive oil
- salt, pepper
Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F).
Peel and slice the onion and garlic. Rinse the remaining vegetables, trim and slice them. Rinse the herbs. Combine everything in an oven-proof dish. Season with salt and pepper, and drizzle with olive oil (about two tablespoons). Toss a little more to ensure even coating.
Cover the dish with foil and bake for 45 minutes. At this point the vegetables should be cooked but not colored, and there should be cooking juices at the bottom of the pan.
Remove the foil and bake for another 30 to 45 minutes, keeping an eye on the progress, until the cooking juices have evaporated and the vegetables have taken on a nice roasted aspect.
Remove the sprigs of herb, and serve immediately, or at room temperature, or cold. It gets even better the next day and the day after that.
Fregola Sarda with Zucchini and Parmesan
Roasted Green Peppers