September 4, 2010

Ratatouille Provençal with Polenta

This is an adaptation of a recipe from The New Basics Cookbook which, throughout graduate school, was the only cookbook we owned. My dad actually drew our attention to this recipe, which makes ratatouille a little more interesting with the addition of basil pesto and olives. You barely sauté the vegetables before putting them in the oven to bake for 45 minutes. When we first gave it a try, we liked it, but we had a dilemma. By itself, it's not quite enough for a main course, but it's enough work that we didn't feel like making a meat to go with it. So what to serve it with to make a complete meal? We first tried couscous, which was fine, but a little lackluster. Then, we finally made one of those "why haven't we been eating this all along" discoveries - polenta. It's so easy and delicious.

In fact, the first time we made polenta (for a wild mushroom appetizer that we made last Thanksgiving), I was stirring the polenta while Michael worked on the mushrooms, and I tasted the polenta to see how it was doing. It was so good that I tasted it again, and "tasted" is probably not the best word because it was quite a large spoonful, and tasting turned into eating and there was a moment when I really wasn't sure I was going to have the self-control to stop eating it. That's how good it is.

For the ratatouille, we added some capers to the original recipe, as well as a wider variety of squashes, and crumbled some goat cheese on top for some creamy tanginess - add some garlic bread on the side and it's a perfect meal. You could easily make it vegan by using only stock or water in the polenta and leaving off the cheese; if you want to make it meatier, we think andouille sausage would be a good addition.

Ratatouille (serves 4-5)
Adapted from Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins, The New Basics Cookbook
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 2 leeks, well rinsed and chopped into 1 inch pieces
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 medium eggplant, diced into 1 inch pieces
- 1 pound of assorted squash (we used zucchini, yellow and green summer squash), diced
- 1 pint cherry tomatoes (or 2 medium tomatoes, chopped)
- 1/2 cup niçoise olives
- 2 tbsp capers
- 1/2 cup basil pesto (recipe below)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the leeks and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, squash, and eggplant and cook for three minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, olives, capers, and pesto, and transfer the mixture to a casserole. Cover and put in the oven. Bake for 45 minutes, stirring once halfway through.

Basil Pesto (makes about 3/4 cup - a little more than you need for the ratatouille, but we find that extra pesto is never a problem)
A confession: we are not purists when it comes to our pesto. When we discovered that pine nuts had more than doubled in price, we decided to try substituting cashews, and thought the result tasted just as good.
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 and 1/2 cup fresh basil, loosely packed
- 1/4 cup pine nuts or other nuts
- 1/3 cup parmesan cheese
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- Salt and black pepper to taste

Put the garlic, basil, pine nuts, cheese, and salt and pepper in a food processor, and pulse until well blended. With the food processor running, add the olive oil in a slow stream until the mixture resembles a creamy paste, using more or less oil as needed.

Creamy Polenta (serves 4-5)
- 1 cup polenta (coarse cornmeal)
- 2 cups vegetable stock
- 2 cups milk
- 1 California bay leaf or 2 Turkish bay leaves
- 1 tbsp butter
- 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
- Salt and pepper to taste

Bring the stock and milk to a boil in a medium saucepan. Turn off the heat and add the bay leaf, letting the mixture sit for fifteen minutes to absorb the flavor (skip this step if you're pressed for time). Remove the bay leaf and bring the liquid to a simmer over medium heat. Add the polenta gradually, pouring it in a slow stream while stirring it in with a whisk to prevent clumps. Keep stirring the mixture until it thickens, about 10 minutes. Add the butter, cheese, salt, and pepper, and taste (if you have the self-control to do so!)
Serve the ratatouille over the polenta and crumble some soft goat cheese, such as chevre, over the top.

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