Saturday, October 15, 2011

More often than not these days, I'm totally wiped out when I get home from work. The last thing I want to do most evenings is cook an elaborate, complicated dinner - I just want food, and I want it now! And I don't want it to come out of a box... especially not a pizza-sized box from the crappy pizzeria next door. So I've been experimenting with ways to get most of the work for dinner done ahead of time. A few weekends ago, I made a triple batch of meatballs, rolled them up and flash froze them in the raw and stacked them up in a freezer bag. It's easy as pie to come home, stick a couple of them in the oven for thirty minutes, boil up some spaghetti or slice open a hero roll and have dinner ready by the time the six o'clock news starts.

Ratatouille is another great make-ahead meal. It can safely stay in the fridge for a few days after it's prepared, and like most stews, it only gets better with age. I can also serve it in a few different, easy ways to mix things up a little bit - while I love a simple, warm bowl of ratatouille with some crusty bread for dipping, a dish of olives and a glass of wine, you could also plate it with rice, couscous or savory crepes for something different! And look how yummy it looks, all full of herbes de provence and soft, tender vegetables.


I'm going to tell you how to make my favorite version of ratatouille, but first I want to show you my inspiration for this dinner... the most beautiful bell pepper I've ever seen.


Seriously, though. Isn't that something? As soon as I saw those in our CSA selection this week, I was all, MINE! And then there were little purple eggplant in the next bucket, and I was like, HEY THESE MATCH!


And then I got them home and I was like, SO NOW WHAT? Eggplant... pepper... hey, and I have those oven-dried tomatoes still in the fridge, marinating in oil... oh! Ratatouille. Well, obviously.

For dessert, a gorgeous, perfect apple pie, made in penance for the one that I totally screwed up at my parents' house a few weekends ago. I got it right this time, starting with the Pillsbury pie crust fresh from my grocer's freezer. (I hate to admit it, but I think pie dough is one of those things that really isn't better homemade. Or at least not in my home.)

I'd intended to make Four and Twenty Blackbirds' amazing Salted Caramel Apple Pie, but when I picked up the sugar bowl to start making caramel, I realized that I was very low on sugar - and didn't want to risk the last scant cup of sugar in my house in a potentially dicey caramel-making endeavor. But I'd already sliced the apples - on a mandolin, no less - and time was running out. So I went where I always go when I need a recipe that I'm sure will be absolutely perfect: Smitten Kitchen. I used Deb's Apple Pie recipe with only a few slight changes - I added a teaspoon of vanilla and an extra tablespoon of flour and substituted a full teaspoon of fleur de sel for the quarter teaspoon of regular salt. (I also used a different kind of apple, though I've now forgotten which kind. I'm kicking myself, for real.)

This was the first time I'd ever actually followed a recipe for apple pie, and boy, was it worth it. Look at this thing!


Look at it! All browned and sugary and flaky and delicious... and look at the inside, too! LOOK!


Oh man, perfectly tender, compact layers of apple filling and thickened juices just gooey enough, scented with just enough cinnamon and vanilla... this is quite possibly the best apple pie I have ever made. I cannot stop eating it. Honestly, if there's a better apple pie in the world, I don't want to know about it. Oh, and it makes your house smell kind of amazing while it's baking, too. So... you should definitely make one. Today.

And one final dish: My lovely and talented friend Emily and I have recently announced our newest culinary venture - the Whiskey & Salt Supper Club! If my ideas are intriguing to you and you wish to subscribe to my newsletter... or if you just want to eat some delicious food, with a menu prepared and executed by Emily and I, drink some fabulous cocktails and meet some fun folks around the dinner table, head over to whiskeyandsalt.com and sign up for our email list! We'll keep you posted on how you can attend our first event, currently scheduled for December 3rd.

Ratatouille
the way I've always made it - three to four servings

one small-to-medium eggplant
one medium-to-large zucchini
one bell pepper (I generally use red, but obviously substituted purple here)
(optional - three oven-dried plum tomato halves)
one clove of garlic
one 14 oz can of crushed tomatoes
olive oil
herbes de provence, either a commercial mixture or a homemade one including rosemary, thyme, marjoram, oregano and fennel seed

Cut eggplant and zucchini into medium dice. Cut bell pepper into short, thin strips. Mince garlic. Heat a generous amount of olive oil (three to four tablespoons) in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat and saute eggplant four to five minutes, until golden and tender. Remove eggplant to a bowl and add zucchini, bell pepper and garlic to the remaining oil in the pan. (Add more olive oil if necessary.) Sprinkle lavishly with herbes de provence and cook until zucchini is tender. Add eggplant back to the pot, along with crushed tomato (and dried tomato, if using). Reduce heat to a simmer, add salt and pepper and taste for seasoning, adjusting if necessary. Cover and simmer for an hour or more, stirring occasionally and adding a small amount of water if the stew becomes too thick.

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