For a lot of people the end of one year and the beginning of the next is a chance for a fresh start. It’s an arbitrary marker that motivates people to look at things (themselves primarily) in a new way. And sometimes that’s a good thing, because on New Year’s Eve when you’re out late at the bars, eating all those loaded potato skins, fries, and whatever other bar food you can get your hands on and you’re drinking… heavily… well, let’s just say January first is a good day to start a detox. The thing about the end of a year is that, unlike other holidays or even your birthday, this marker of time is global. It’s a shared experience with not just your immediate friends and family but with everyone, and that is a perfectly valid reason to party like it’s 1999. For us however, the end of the year has never really been that big of a deal. In many years we have actually gone to bed early, especially when the next day was a workday, without any regret. In the years we lived in New York, we never once went into Times Square to watch the ball drop and in a good number of years where we did stay up late, we only tuned the television into the New Years Eve countdown broadcast only a few minutes before the actual countdown started. I always thought that one of the best parts of the new year was on New Year’s Day when the Rose Parade is broadcast. There were many years where David and I would get up to watch the parade broadcast on KTLA channel five… with Bob Eubanks and Stephanie Edwards. Each year we would eagerly wait for the Cal Poly float to come down Orange Grove Boulevard because when it reached a certain point, (directly across from the KTLA cameras where the crowd was made up almost completely of Cal Poly students), the float would spray the crowd with water and some of the students lining the street would use fire extinguishers or water guns to spray back at the float as it passed. Sadly, somewhere along the way, the parade folks, or maybe the Cal Poly folks, who knows for sure, put an end to that tradition and in recent years we don’t even watch the parade anymore.
There was one year where David and I decided to spend New Years Eve in the company of the general public and we decided that we would go to Disneyland. The park that day was not too terribly crowded. It was busy but not like it is in the height of summer. A good number of the park guests that day were large groups of college kids (all dressed alike in their school colors) that would be marching in the Rose Parade the next day, but for the most part, the lines were long only on the most popular rides. The park still had all of the holiday decorations up and at dusk when the lights came on and they lit up the décor and the trees with thousands of twinkle lights it was pretty magical. So there we were, enjoying a pretty good day, taking every advantage we could of the fast pass system and wandering through the shops knowing full well we weren’t going to buy anything. After dark we stood and watched the Main Street Electrical Parade; we rode the Matterhorn and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, which both take on a different feel after dark, and around eleven p.m. we started to make our way towards Main Street. We wanted to get a good view of the castle over which the fireworks would shoot, and of course get a good view of Tinkerbell as she flew past the castle. As we stood in our chosen spot, just at the top of Main Street, we started talking about how we were glad it wasn’t super crowded, and as the minutes ticked by we barely noticed the street was starting to fill up with the other guests as well. By the time the fireworks started but before the “snow” was being generated from the nearby rooftops, the place was packed. The kind of packed that only sardines should know about.
Maybe because you’re so wrapped up in the décor, the fireworks, the music, the snow, the smell of popcorn that still mysteriously wafts through the air, that you really don’t notice the incredible influx of new people entering the park until you realize that you need to go to the bathroom and that you can no longer move easily about. When you do stop to look at the crowd, that’s about all you can see, people crowded together, sharing the same experience, as far down Main Street as you can see. Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time on that trip, I loved every literally jam-packed minute of it. I think, for me, that of all the times I have been to Disneyland, (and that is quite a few times) that trip on New Year’s Eve, despite the last minute crowd, was by far my favorite trip. Would I do it again? Eh, probably not… unless it’s all expenses paid trip including admission, hotel, meals and unlimited souvenirs… then, I would consider it. Feel free to email me if you want to make an offer.
I can certainly understand the feeling of renewal some people have at the start of a new year. It’s as if we are standing at the starting line of a year long race and any of the things that have come before, good or bad, are metaphorically boxed up, labeled with a big sticker that says: ”Last Year”, and packed away. Looking ahead, we want a brighter future; we look forward to new experiences and better times. The new year holds the promises of all that we desire. This year I’ll do better at… This year I’m going to try harder to… This year is going to be… And all of that is good, all of that is motivation, all of that is a renewed spirit. If you’re out celebrating, when the clock strikes midnight and you instinctively yell out “Happy New Year!” (along with everyone else) I think it’s not about the fact that time kept moving, that the world didn’t instantly stop revolving, or even that it’s January first, but more so it’s about the expectation of what’s to come.
As the new year approaches and we are hurriedly making plans for how we are to celebrate, while we are looking up the words to Auld Lang Syne so we don’t look a fool when everyone else starts singing, while we are ruminating on what resolutions we are going to make, it may seem odd to read a post that features a recipe that is steeped in fresh summer vegetables, but if you think about it, that’s just what we need right now. A fresh start to bring us into the new year, to deliver us (even temporarily) from the cold clutches of winter. And with summer produce available in most parts of the country year round it seems fitting, at least to me, to make Ratatouille now. Besides the holidays have been filled with cinnamon bread, coffee cakes, candy canes, hot chocolate, and frozen desserts so it’s high time we eat some vegetables, right? But here’s the thing, we are not going to make it by simply tossing a bunch of cubed vegetables into a sauté pan. We’re not going to risk overcooking the eggplant because we didn’t put the zucchini or bell pepper in at the proper time. We are going to make it the Disney way… Or should I say the way Remy made it in the movie Ratatouille. I like this version better, despite it taking a bit more time to prepare. I think it presents a lot better and it takes all of the guesswork out of sautéing the different veggies for different amounts of time. And, quite frankly making this version of Ratatouille at New Year’s reminds me of our Disneyland trip on New Year’s Eve so many years ago, what more is needed than that? Thomas Keller created the original recipe and there are lots of different versions on the www these days, some overly simplified and some that add extra steps that, to me, make the dish too “fussy”. I have tried to find the balance between those.
Let’s start with some tips to help you succeed:
When purchasing your vegetables (the zucchini, yellow squash, Japanese eggplant, and Roma tomatoes) look for ones that are similar in circumference, this will help when shingling them together and will help make the end result look its best. This dish does rely on good preparation, slicing your vegetables very thin (1/16 of an inch) and uniformly is key. A mandolin can really help on the firmer vegetables but if you don’t have one, just use a very sharp knife and you’ll be fine. When preparing the sauce for the bottom of the dish, be sure to finely chop your onions, tomatoes, garlic, and bell pepper, again take your time in prepping and the end result will be perfect. When it comes to arranging the slices, you can use any baking dish you like, even an eight inch stainless steel skillet can work, just take your time when placing them in the baking dish, in this instance neatness really does count. You’ll need some parchment paper cut to fit your baking dish to cover the veggies while they bake but no other special equipment is really needed. As for serving, if you run a three Michelin star home, then by all means arrange some slices in the center of each persons plate by packing them artistically into a ring mold, then carefully remove the mold to reveal perfectly stacked veggies, drizzle the vinaigrette in a circle around the plate, and garnish the top of each stack with a single chive, OR, if you’re like me, you can simply place the baking dish on the table, along with whatever else you decide to serve for dinner and allow folks to serve themselves. Put the vinaigrette in a small bowl at the side, and allow everyone to use as they wish. I put a little goat cheese on the table for folks to crumble on top of their serving if they like as well. And finally, this recipe serves 4 to 5 people but you can infinitely scale the recipe to serve as many as you like, or to fill as many baking dishes as you have.
So, let’s put this together shall we?
2 red bell peppers, cut in half, stem, seeds, and ribs removed
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1½ teaspoons minced garlic
½ cup finely diced yellow onion
3 tomatoes (about 12 ounces), peeled and finely diced, juices reserved *see note for peeling tomatoes
Pinch dried thyme
1 bay leaf
1 zucchini (6 to 8 ounces) sliced into 1/16-inch rounds
1 or 2 Japanese eggplant (6 to 8 ounces total), sliced into 1/16-inch rounds
1 yellow squash (6 to 8 ounces), sliced into 1/16-inch rounds
4 Roma tomatoes, sliced into 1/16-inch rounds
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
⅛ teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Start by preheating your oven with the rack in the center position to 450°F.
Cut a piece of parchment paper to fit just inside of your baking dish(s). You will use this later to place on top of the vegetables while they bake. Set it aside for now.
Place the red pepper halves, cut side down, on a foil-lined sheet pan and roast until the skins loosen, about 15 to 18 minutes. Remove them from the oven and cover them loosely with a piece of aluminum foil. Let them rest until they’re cool enough to handle. When cool, peel off and discard the skins then chop the peppers finely.
Reduce the heat in the oven to 275°F.
Combine 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, the garlic, and the onion in a medium sized skillet set over a medium-low heat until very soft, but not browned, between 7 and 10 minutes.
Add to the skillet the tomatoes, along with their juices, the pinch of thyme, and the bay leaf and continue simmering over medium-low heat until very soft and very little liquid remains, which can take anywhere from 10 to 25 minutes depending on how juicy your tomatoes are. Stir the mixture occasionally while it cooks and do not let it brown.
Next, add the prepared peppers and simmer to soften them and to thicken the mixture, about 8 to 10 more minutes.
Season to taste with salt and discard the bay leaf.
Optional: At this point you can place the mixture in a blender and blend it into a perfect puree then proceed as follows, or simply leave it as is, a slightly chunky looking sauce.
Reserve 2 tablespoons of the sauce and spread the remainder in a thin even layer into the bottom of your baking dish(s).
Arrange alternating slices of zucchini, eggplant, yellow squash and Roma tomatoes, overlapping them so that a little less than ¼-inch of each slice is exposed, in your baking dish until the dish is filled. Arrange the slices in a circular, spiral, or linear pattern that best fits your baking dish. Take your time here, there’s no need to rush.
Drizzle 2 tablespoon of the olive oil over the arranged vegetables and then sprinkle the top with a little salt and pepper.
Place the piece of parchment paper you cut earlier on top of the vegetables. Bake until vegetables are tender, about 1½ hours.
Lastly, combine the reserved 2 tablespoons of sauce with the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil, the vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste in a small bowl. Drizzle around the ratatouille on the plates if serving individually or pass the vinaigrette separately if serving family style.
Serve ratatouille hot.
To peel tomatoes: bring a large pan of water to a boil and set a large bowl of ice water nearby. Cut a small X into the bottom of each tomato and place them in the boiling water for about 30 seconds. Remove the tomatoes and place immediately into the ice water. When cool, peel the tomato starting at the cut end.
That’s it for 2018 folks…