Monday, September 19, 2011

Farm Fresh Oven-Baked Ratatouille over Herbed Polenta

Beautiful produce from Gibson Canyon Farm

I have this dream of planting and harvesting the food for all my cooking endeavors. The closest I get most days is picking herbs from my wine barrels and buying produce from local farmers.

Besides creating wine dinners for clients, teaching occasional cooking classes, blogging, writing recipes and taking care of my family (my real full time job) I also cook for anywhere from 3 to 15 families every week.  The broad range generally reflects what's on the menu. Surprising to me, the vegetarian entrees are usually the big draw.  So I guess I shouldn't have been shocked when Ratatouille over Polenta was the most popular choice on my menu this week, but somehow I was. 

Beyond passionate about supporting local small farms for my ingredients, I love crediting the farms for the ingredients I use in my menus.  Knowing Gibson Canyon had a plethora of the typical late summer produce, I highlighted the farm's offerings on not just one, but two of the three choices of entrees on my menu.  Big mistake!

But turned out okay.

My first clue that things weren't going as planned was as I turned off the road winding into the hills, there was a "WEEKENDS ONLY" sign plastered over the normal sign.  Though I had made an appointment to arrive early to pick up my produce, there was no vehicles and no movement on the property.  Having waited a bit, I was so happy to see the old Chevy truck drive around the corner of the barn and my friend Sue (the farmer) get out. (I was dreading having to bow to my contingency plan of supermarket shopping to fulfill my clients' meal orders.)

We chatted about what was happening with the farm and found out that a lack of traffic forced her to pare down to just three days a week.  As we're talking, my wheels were turning and I was realizing my published menu was falling apart as we spoke.  Not one to give up easily, I asked if there was anything in the field.  My words, "I wore my picking clothes" prompted Sue to fetch me scissors and gloves then walk me up to the location in her field of all my beloved ingredients.

Suddenly, it's not about simply food or cooking.  I'm thrust into a different world where I am enthralled with creation.  Yellow-centered, lavender toned blossoms of Japanese eggplant as well as the deep purple fruit caught my attention immediately.  I had never seen eggplant blossoms before and had no idea how lovely they were. Had I not forgotten my phone in my car, you would be looking at them right now.  The brilliantly pigmented and shiny fruit against the green vines was truly beautiful, I was at once entranced and just walked around the eggplant patch for a few minutes admiringly.

Finally pulling myself out of the eggplant "trance"  I noticed butterflies everywhere. Giant sunflowers were watching the sun. Discovering brilliant red perfect tomatoes among tangled, stubborn vines became an enjoyable and addictive treasure hunt that resulted in way more fruit than I needed.  While I went about the work of harvesting sweet red and grassy flavored green bell peppers, super sweet carmine peppers and tomatoes, Sue had found enough squash, while working on irrigation pipes, to complete my basket.

After all the searching, watching for stickery weeds, lunging to avoid stepping on rows, 45 minutes had passed and I had harvested 15 pounds of produce out of what appeared from the road and my non-farmers' eye, to be a weed patch.  I realized once again how organically raised produce is so different from the pristine, pesticide/ herbicide laden gardens that are lovely  to observe.

So while I could have gotten my shopping done in 10 minutes at a supermarket, without sweating or itching, in the end, not only did this ugly duckling farm feed me and my clients well this week; it fed my soul and spirit in the moment.

CWYG Stats

Seasonal Items - eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, rosemary, sage, thyme

CWYG Items - olive oil, garlic, onions, polenta, milk, parmesan cheese, butter

Oven-Baked Ratatouille over Herbed Polenta
Enjoy this with a cold rosé or lighter red wine.

1 lb each eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes and peppers
1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
8 large garlic cloves, minced
1 large sprig rosemary
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
sea salt to taste
red pepper flakes, optional
1 cup polenta
1 tsp sea salt
2 cups milk
1 tbsp mixed chopped herbs (sage, rosemary and thyme is what I used, but basil and oregano would work, too.)
2 tbsp butter
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Cut all vegetables into uniform pieces.  (I cut mine into about 1" chunks.)

In a large roasting pan, toss the vegetables with sliced onions, minced garlic, a teaspoon of salt, red pepper flakes and olive oil. Bury rosemary sprig in the middle and cover tightly with foil.  Bake for 45 minutes to an hour until the vegetables have cooked down and are very tender.  Remove foil and cook for another 30-45 minutes or until the juices have reduced to create a thick sauce around the vegetables.  Taste for salt and add to taste.  This can be served hot, cold or at room temperature.  With the polenta, I tend to serve it hot or room temperature.

To prepare polenta, whisk the polenta with 2 cups water in a heavy-bottomed 3-4 quart saucepan.  Add the milk, herbs and salt.  Turn heat to high and bring to a boil, whisking often.  Keep whisking until the polenta thickens significantly.  Reduce heat to low, whisk until the bubbling stops then cover.  Cook over low until the polenta has lost the gritty texture and is smooth.  Check it every few minutes to make sure it's not sticking and isn't developing into lumps.  When it is smooth and very thick, add the butter and cheese.  Whisk well.  Serve it warm and soft or let it harden at room temperature.  It can be pan-sauteed in olive oil or butter to serve as the foundation for a multitude of toppings.
Copyright 2011 Christi Flaherty, TablaVie Cooking Classes

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Copyright 2012 TablaVie Personal Chef Service

All photos and recipes may not be used without express permission from Christi Flaherty, owner and creator of Cook What You've Got Concept and blog.
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