Story and Photo by Chef Jeffrey Gimmel, Swoon Kitchenbar
The height of summer is one of the greatest joys of living in the Hudson Valley. My wife, Nina, and I had burned out on the Manhattan restaurant scene and needed a place to cook the food we like to cook. We ended up in Hudson, NY, partly due to family proximity, partly by luck. We know this area of the Hudson Valley pretty well, as Nina grew up in Woodstock and we would take weekend trips from the city in the summer to explore farms and farmers’ markets in the area, when the vegetables are at the peak of ripeness. The opportunity to live and cook in the midst of all these great farms, where we could source fresh every day, was too good to pass up. We opened Swoon in the spring of 2004.
Nina and I are regulars at Holmquest and Eger Farms, the two farms closest to Swoon. We are there this time of year every day. When I see their farm stands overflowing with just-picked ripe vegetables, I think about ratatouille. Ratatouille is one of my favorite dishes to cook in the summer and early fall and has been a staple of the daily-changing menu at Swoon since the beginning. Ratatouille is simply onions, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, squash and fresh herbs. It is a southern French vegetable stew I learned to make while working in Provence for the famed chef Roger Vergé. Vergé was one of the first great chefs to treat his vegetables with the same passion and respect as his meats and fish. The ratatouille I learned from him exemplifies this. Few other dishes allow you to enjoy vegetables together in as cohesive a way as ratatouille does. It is an immensely satisfying one-pot meal, especially when made from fresh local produce. Enjoy your summer, and eat your vegetables!
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion
Sea salt to taste
Fresh-ground pepper to taste
1 medium eggplant, medium diced
2 to 3 red bell peppers, medium diced
4 to 5 Italian plum tomatoes, medium diced
1 to 2 zucchini, medium diced
Fresh herbs: thyme, basil, rosemary and chives, chopped
Like any recipe, the key to success is proper technique. Ratatouille has to be cooked slowly with good olive oil, in a heavy saucepan or casserole pot with a lid that fits securely. The vegetables need to be cut to similar sizes and added in the proper order to ensure even cooking, and they need to be seasoned upon entering the pot with a good sea salt. That way each vegetable expresses itself individually and proudly blends with the others. Ratatouille must be cooked on a low flame with the lid of the pot firmly attached so that all the juices released during cooking don’t evaporate and are left in the stew.
Slowly heat the olive oil over a low flame. Add the diced onion, season with sea salt and fresh-ground pepper and cook covered until slightly translucent. Add the other vegetables (except the zucchini) one at a time, seasoning each with salt and fresh-ground pepper as they go into the pot. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until they begin to wilt and let go of the juices. Add zucchini, season with salt and fresh ground pepper, stir into vegetable mix, cover and cook slowly until all vegetables are fully cooked and soft.
Turn the vegetables out into a colander or perforated pan with a bowl or pot underneath. Collect all the delicious juices as they drain and return the juices to the stove as the vegetables cool. Reduce the juices slowly by ¾ volume until they become viscous. Stir the reduced juices back into the vegetables, add your chopped herbs and adjust the seasoning as needed with salt and pepper.
Ratatouille is great by itself on toast with a little grated parmesan, or can be the perfect accompaniment to almost any poultry, fish or meat.