Posted in Blog, Nosh

A soup called Roberto

Helen Rosner of the New Yorker published her go-to soup as an Instagram story. It went viral. I’m reproducing it as one of my collection of quick and dirty recipes for a no-fuss delicious meal. (I particularly enjoy Helen’s folksy descriptions of the preparation. I think I’d enjoy cooking with her.)

Ingredients

Olive oil
1 baseball-size onion, if you have one
2-4 cloves garlic (enough garlic to make up approximately the volume of your thumb)
Salt
1 lb. hot Italian sausage, or a well-seasoned vegetarian sausage
1 28-oz. can tomatoes (diced, crushed, or whole)
1 14-oz. can of beans of any type (kidney, great northern, garbanzo, etc.) or a similar quantity of cooked dried beans
4 cups stock of any sort, or a mix of 1 cup dry red or white wine and 3 cups water
1 bunch kale or any other green
Fresh-ground black pepper
Hard, salty cheese, like Parmesan or pecorino
One lemon
Parsley, if you have any

Directions

1. Gather all your ingredients, and get out a large soup pot with a lid, and a wooden spoon. If your sausage is in a casing, remove it from the casing, so it’s like a paste of ground meat with seasonings in it, which is mostly all that sausage is. If you’re using vegetarian sausage or casing-free sausage, chop it into small pieces. Peel the onion and chop it into small pieces. Peel the garlic and finely mince it.

2. Put the olive oil and onions into the soup pot, and set it over medium heat. Add a pinch of salt (a pinch is about a quarter teaspoon) and stir. Slowly cook the onions until they start to become soft and translucent—this is usually about 4 minutes, but sometimes it takes as long as 7. Add the garlic and stir until you get hit with that nostalgic garlic-and-onion smell, about 1 minute. Raise the heat to medium-high and add the sausage to the pot. Stir, using your spoon to break up the sausage into pieces that could comfortably fit on a spoon. It’s better to overcook the sausage than to undercook it. For the best flavor, you want the pieces to begin to brown on the outside: they should look speckled with dark spots, like a leopard or a cute dog. This will take as long as 10 minutes. Be patient. You don’t have to stir constantly—just check on it every few minutes.

3. While the sausage is cooking, open the can of tomatoes, and open and drain the can of beans. Get your broth ready, or if you’re using water with wine, get that ready. De-stem the kale and chop it into smaller-than-spoon-size pieces.

4. When the sausage is starting to brown and looks and smells delicious, dump in the tomatoes (including all the liquid), the beans (it’s O.K. if there’s a little liquid left in the can and you add that, too), and the stock, and raise the heat to high in order to bring the whole thing to a simmer. (If you’ve used canned whole tomatoes, use your wooden spoon to break them into smaller pieces by violently crushing them against the side of the pot. You cannot over-crush the tomatoes.)

5. Once the soup has reached a simmer, add the kale. The pot will look extremely full, but don’t worry—the kale will collapse like an empty wedding gown as soon as you start stirring it in, which you should do. Once all the greens are in the pot, put the lid on, turn the heat down to medium-low, and let the whole thing simmer for about 5 minutes—or even longer if you want to, or if you have other things going on. Use this time to grate some of the cheese into a bowl, which you can reuse later to eat soup out of. You don’t need a lot of cheese—maybe a quarter cup, but it’s up to you.

6. Remove the lid from the pot and stir the greens into the soup. Taste the soup (use the wooden spoon; you’re less likely to burn your mouth) and consider how much salt and black pepper you think it needs. Then add half as much salt as you want to and twice as much pepper. Add a little more pepper. Dump in the shredded cheese and stir. Taste it again and see if you need more salt. (The secret is that the cheese has salt in it.)

7. Ladle the soup, which is very hot, into individual bowls. Buy some time for it to cool down by cutting a lemon into wedges and squeezing a wedge of juice into each bowl. If any lemon seeds fall out into the bowls, gently fish them out. Don’t drop the spent wedges into the bowls like they’re glasses of iced tea. If you have extra cheese, you can sprinkle it on top, and if you have parsley and want to chop up some parsley and put it on top, it’ll be good, but it’s also pretty great without it.

Posted in Blog, Nosh

The right ratatouille

Ratatouille: from the French rata —a military ration; and touiller—to stir. The military origin of the word indicates a thin vegetable stew with, perhaps, a few scraps of rancid meat floating on top. In its more appealing manifestation as a regional Niçoise dish, ratatouille is a hearty combination of aubergine, tomato, red peppers and courgettes. At its most basic, it is simple to pepare, however, making the most of this basic recipe, takes a little skill and more time than you may be willing to spend. In the perfect ratatouille, each of the four ingredients should be as individual and identifiable as the instruments in a string quartet.

Let’s begin by defining the “wrong” ratatouille. The monstrosity on the left, inspired by the Disney movie of the same name, is no more than a table decoration. It takes hours to prepare and it may as well be a raw vegetable salad with Ranch dressing. Don’t bother with it.

To make the “right” ratatouille, each ingredient must be cooked separately with the best olive oil, then combined at the last minute with a staple base of melted red onion and garlic, a few herbs, and sprinkled with something sharp and astringent, to ameliorate the sweetness. It takes time and strategy, but it’s worth it.

The recipe below produces enough ratatouille for 4-5 hungry eaters. Any leftovers can be kept in the fridge and gently reheated (preferably in a saucepan rather than a microwave) up to 5 days later. You can probably freeze ratatouille, but the defrosted result will most likely have the consistency of a lumpy reconstituted sauce.

Cooking order

2-3 large Red Peppers: Roast whole in a very hot oven or directly over the flame or on a barbecue, until the skin is blackened. Rest them in a plastic bag for 10 mins, then slide off the skins and remove the membranes and seeds. Their taste will be sweet and smoky. Slice into 50mm strips, put aside and keep warm.

4-5 Tomatoes: If you can find vine-ripened, fleshy tomatoes, all the better. Put them in a bowl and pour over boiling water. Remove after a minute and skin them. Cut them in quarters and remove the seeds and inner liquid into a sieve over a bowl—you will be using this liquid later. Salt the tomato quarters lightly (some people like to add a little sugar as well) and sprinkle them with olive oil. Space them out on a wire rack in a moderate 160°C oven and cook for about 40 mins—until they are softened (not mush!) and aromatic. Remove, cut into 20mm cubes if necessary and keep warm.

2-3 Aubergines Cut into 20mm cubes, with the skin left on, and fry gently in a little olive oil until the white flesh looks toasted on the outside and they are quite soft—perhaps a little under-cooked at this stage. Put them aside and keep warm.

Red Onions & Garlic: Peel and halve 1-2 onions (depends on size). Slice the onions finely and cook them slowly with a little oil in a large pot. When they are soft, but not brown, add the crushed garlic along with salt and pepper to taste. I also like to add a pinch of dried chilli flakes for a kick. If you like the taste of oregano or thyme, throw a few sprigs in with the onions.

2-3 Courgettes/Zucchini: Cut into 20mm cubes. Do not salt them—we want them to be crunchy— and fry them quickly in olive oil the aubergine pan. They should show a little brown, but still be firm.

Assembly

Remember the tomato liquid? Push what you can through the sieve and throw away the seeds (or use them to grow more tomatoes). If you have a lot, simmer it and reduce to about a cup-full. It tastes nothing like tinned tomato or passata and will perk up the taste like magic.

Add the aubergines, pepper, tomatoes and courgettes to the softened onion-garlic in the pot and combine gently. Add some of the tomato liquid. At this stage you might like to add some fresh parsley and (not too much) basil. Taste—it will probably be too sweet. You can temper the sweetness with a few teaspoons of red wine vinegar. (Taste between each spoonful—we are not aiming for ratatouille pickle!) Bring the pot up to a slow simmer and cook until the aubergine is soft and toothsome. If it dries out, add more tomato liquid.

Serve on a large plate sprinkled with parsley. (DO NOT ADD GRATED CHEESE!)

Accompanies

Ratatouille is an excellent accompaniment to roast lamb or beef. If it is to be the centrepiece of the meal, I like to offer some pieces of fried haloumi or proscuitto on the same plate—the salty crispness accentuates the richness of the vegetables.

And if you have any of the tomato liquid left over—put it into shot glasses and spike it with gin or vodka. Your dinner guests will love you for it.