This summer, I’m cooking out of boxes. Not in a semi-homemade, processed-foods way—indeed, it’s quite the opposite. I am a member of Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative‘s summer CSA, and each week I pick up a box of vegetables, which I split with a friend. The vegetables are all organic and come from a network of over 80 local farms. I don’t have any control over which vegetables I receive from week to week—that’s up to the crops and the farmers. This week we received zucchini, green cabbage, broccoli, new red potatoes, French heirloom carrots, bull’s blood beets, and some more teeny carrots. The teeny carrots replaced the slicing cucumbers that we’d been promised in our contents list, and the bulb of fennel on the list was missing entirely. Guess the yield wasn’t as expected!
My inability to predict what each weekly box will hold has certainly changed my cooking habits—I usually cook according to what I feel like eating, planning meals in advance as I shop at the grocery. I’m not the kind of grocery shopper who buys ingredients at whim and throws together a meal haphazardly. I would be terrible on the Food Network show Chopped.
Over the past few weeks I’ve learned how to cook (and eat) vegetables I’d never encountered before (beet greens! garlic scapes! pak choy!). I’ve also gotten creative with the seemingly endless bunches and heads of cruciferous vegetables that I’ve gotten over the past few weeks. There have been kale chips, kale with bacon and white beans, massaged kale salad with mango and toasted pepitas. There have been two different kinds of cabbage slaw in the past five days alone.
One of my favorite CSA-dictated meals so far has been the ratatouille I made tonight. It was inspired by the three lovely green zucchini that appeared in this week’s box. Ratatouille is a traditional Provencal dish typically consisting of tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, onion, bell peppers, basil, parsley, and thyme. It is an ideal summer dish because it can be eaten warm or cold, and it doesn’t require turning on the oven or standing over steaming pots at the stove for too long. I will say that the dish tastes better the longer you let it simmer, and even better after a day sitting in the fridge.
I’ve made many a ratatouille before—stovetop ratatouilles, Mastering the Art of French Cooking-style layered and baked ratatouilles, ratatouilles with canned tomatoes rather than fresh. For tonight’s ratatouille, I decided to leave out eggplant, since I had so much zucchini to use up. I liked this eggplant-less ratatouille best out of any I’ve made before, though I typically do love eggplant. I think that omitting the eggplant made for a less mushy, seedy dish.
I ate my ratatouille with rice pilaf (from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything) and topped with some freshly-grated Grana Padano, because I will use any excuse to add cheese to a meal.
Ratatouille (adapted from epicurious)
serves 4 as a main or 8 as a side
2 garlic cloves, minced
3/4 lb grape tomatoes, sliced in half lengthwise
10 basil leaves, chiffonaded
1 small yellow onion, sliced medium-thin or medium diced
1-2 bell peppers, any color, medium diced
3 small-medium zucchini, quartered and chopped into 1/4″ pieces
8 sprigs thyme, tied into a bouquet
1) Heat a medium saucepan (I used my trusty five-quart Le Creuset) over medium heat. Coat the bottom of the pan with a film of olive oil. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, ~1 minute. Add the grape tomatoes and stir, then press down on them with a wooden spoon or spatula to release their juice. Watch the tomatoes and squish ’em down periodically over the next 5 minutes or so, until they have cooked down some and released most of their liquid. Add the basil and turn the heat to low, simmer for another five minutes or so, add salt and pepper to taste, and remove from heat.
2) Meanwhile, in a separate pan, sautee the onion over medium heat with about 1-2 tbsp more olive oil. When the onion has begun to brown slightly, remove from heat, and using a slotted spoon, transfer to the pot with the tomato sauce.
3) Add the bell pepper to the pan that you just cooked the onions in, sautee over medium heat with a bit more olive oil until it begin to soften. Remove from heat, and using a slotted spoon, transfer to the pot with the tomato sauce and onions.
4) Add the zucchini to the pan that you just cooked the peppers in, sautee over medium heat with more olive oil until it begins to soften (get the pattern?). Remove from heat, and using a slotted spoon, transfer to the pot with the tomatoes, onions, and peppers.
5) Turn the heat under the pot with all the vegetables to medium-low, and place in the thyme bouquet. Stir everything together and add some more salt and pepper to taste. Allow the mixture to come to a simmer (the zucchini will release more liquid at this point and sauce the whole business up), cover and turn the heat to low. Let the mixture simmer for at least 10 minutes, though it can go for quite a bit longer. Remove the thyme bouquet and serve.