It was the end of summer and fresh vegetables were in season. Zucchini, yellow squash, eggplants, tomatoes, etc., and all the necessary herbs were freely available from the garden or the greengrocer, and at good prices too. So if you have it all, and more, in the pantry or fridge what better way to celebrate that magical culinary explosion of tastes with a French Provencal classic, a ratatouille?
But wait! The French are not the only ones that have learned to lift a simple vegetable stew to extraordinary culinary heights. More than 2,800 kilometers southeast of Provence there is a small island where people forget to die.
Ikaria, also spelled Icaria, is a small Greek island in the northeastern Aegean Sea, about 30 miles from the coast of Turkey and about 2 hours by ferry east of Mykonos. Ikaria is one of the identified “Blue Zones” in the world, a demographic and/or geographic area where people live, on average, to a very old age due to the food they eat, the lifestyle they live, the amount of physical activity they are involved in and their engaging relationships with family and lifelong friends. The Blue Zones also have other characteristics: the people rarely move out of the area and they exhibit a rigid pattern of similar activities in their community. In Blue Zones it is not unusual for people in their late 80s or 90s to still attend to their vegetable gardens, be beekeepers, or walk several miles a day. On Ikaria between 35%-40% of the islanders live to enjoy life into their 90s. In America, only 4.7% of the current population reaches their 90s. That's why they call Ikaria the island where people forget to die.
A pan of roasted vegetables
I love veggies in general, roasted or as a stew. Whether it is a South African green beans, onions, tomatoes and potatoes stew, a Southwestern corn and black beans stew, Grecian Spanakopita (Spinach and feta cheese pies), or a simple pan of roasted mixed vegetables with fresh Italian herbs and olive oil. In the past ratatouille, that classic French vegetable stew has been my go to dish. It goes well with any kind of protein or grain dish. It gives contrasting flavor and texture to fish dishes, stands up perfectly to grilled steaks or lamb chops and compliments any chicken or pork roast. Of course, ratatouille is very similar in ingredients and in method of preparation as the Grecian Briami, another classic vegetable stew.
A few months ago I watched an international food program on television about Ikaria and one of the dishes featured was the famous “longevity” Ikarian vegetable stew. Where the French prepare the individual vegetables for a ratatouille separately and then combine it all into a single pot and stew it on the stove until it forms a rich sauce, the Ikarians prepare the long cooking vegetables like beans or peas in advance of the other vegetables and then combine it all into a casserole to be baked in the oven. The fact that more or less the same ingredients and herbs can be taken, and produce two totally different flavor sensations and textures, simply because of a slight variance in preparation methods, makes cooking such an interesting hobby. Since then I have had a healthy interest in Greek and Ikarian food. Especially the way they prepare their vegetables.
A Sunday afternoon. A month or so ago. It rained nearly constantly for 24 hours and the clouds have cleared up nicely by the afternoon, but left behind a wet and humid world. By early evening the humidity disappeared and I was going to barbeque a rib-eye steak, some chicken drumsticks and grill a few slices of wheat and oat bread using the vegetables as a bruschetta. Accompanied the food and in keeping it all Mediterranean, a bottle of Marqués de Cáceres Rioja Crianza 2011 from Spain.
In the past I have made Ikarian vegetable stews using black eyed peas or butter beans as a base for the casserole and then followed with traditional veggies like carrots, onions and tomatoes. In an effort to be innovative I decided to create an Ikarian French fusion. I used the basic ingredients for a ratatouille, but followed the Ikarian method of preparation. It is very similar to the Greek Soufica dish that uses eggplant as a base.
A forkful of summer delight
· Skin one eggplant, cut in ¼ inch slices, salt on both sides and let it sweat in a colander for at least an hour· In the meantime slice 1 zucchini and 1 yellow squash into ¼ inch thickness (same as the eggplant for even cooking)
· Slice 1 Spanish or yellow onion into thin slices, put in a bowl and pour about a ¼ cup of olive oil over the onions and massage the oil into the onions with your fingers. (Yeah, get those fingers greasy.)
· 1 Green bell pepper, remove seeds and roughly chop into 1 inch pieces
· 4 cloves of garlic, peeled and mashed.
· 3-4 Roma tomatoes, chopped
· Fresh Rosemary, oregano, basil and lots of thyme. Any combination will do.
· Salt and pepper
· Olive oil for grilling and frying
· Prepare a grill. Must be between 400 ºF and 450 ºF. You can also do this in the oven, but I prefer the grill.· Rinse the eggplant under water and dry with kitchen towels
· Brush eggplant pieces lightly with olive oil (do not add any salt) and grill the eggplant for about 4 minutes on each side. You must get nice grill marks and the eggplant must feel soft to the touch, but still firm. Set aside
· Heat the oven to 375 ºF
· Heat a little oil in a skillet on the stove
· Flavor the zucchini and the yellow squash lightly with salt and pepper and fry them until they get a golden color on both sides
· Now layer the casserole
· Put the eggplant at the bottom of a casserole dish and then add the zucchini, the squash, the green bell peppers, the onions and lastly the tomatoes
· Add the herbs on top. No need to chop them.
· Cover and bake for about 45 minutes. Remove cover and continue to bake for another 15 minutes.
Savor and enjoy!!!