Chef Kimber Herron and I have been preparing for our Cooking Class Debut on September 2nd by trying out various recipes. We are hosting local writers, bloggers, farmers and culinary aficionados for a night of delicious food and local wine. We finally decided to make a classic Italian dish called Peperonata… or is it Ratatouille? Peperonata is something I grew up with. My Venetian aunt Candida would make my favorite version in late summer when peppers, zucchini, eggplant and basil are at their best. Ratatouille was something more complicated that I first encountered on a date in high school to a local French restaurant. There are ongoing debates over whether you make your ratatouille in layers, or saute the whole mess together. Julia Child insisted on a layering approach, where the aubergine and the courgettes are sauteed separately, while the tomatoes, onion, garlic and bell peppers are made into a sauce. And then, of course, there is Remy from Disney/Pixar’s film who apparently is somewhere in between Julia and Aunt Candida in his preparation.
Either way you decide to make your own version of this dish, Kimber and I definitely discovered the big differences are based in timing and the kind of pot you use. Whenever I first develop a recipe for Smith Meadows Kitchen, I start at home with the le Creuset pots my father bought for our family when I was a little girl. We had a set in orange and one in blue– Aldo Polo liked to cook a lot. These pots hold their heat well, and nothing puts a golden color and slight crust on veggies like an enameled, cast iron pot. Kimber is partial to his cast iron pots that he uses in his hearth cooking demonstrations at the historic mill in Millwood, VA. Although there is nothing like a heap of grits made in an iron pot seasoned with bacon grease, we weren’t sure how this would translate to Peperonata.
With tomatoes & zucchini from Leah Justice’s Vine Ripe Farm, shallots from Kimber’s garden, peppers from Jim Huyett’s Sunnyside Farm and eggplant from Shawna Rinker Hartsook at Oak Hart Farm, we set to work one Friday night after packing for farmers market. We needed to practice our debut dish and we wanted to put some age old debates to rest. Do you salt and press the eggplant ahead of time? Do you cook the vegetables in a certain order? Are you making sauce or a braised vegetable stew? Olive oil or butter? What is zucchini al dente?
Here are some of the answers we came up with. Enameled iron pots are better than cast iron because of the high acid content of the ingredients. The peperonata will have a darker color and a more heavy eggplant taste when it is cooked in cast iron. Pressing and salting the eggplant is a necessary step that releases a lot of water and bitterness. Of course peel the eggplant, especially if you are sensitive to night shades. The order of vegetables is key– tomatoes definitely go in before the zucchini and the eggplant. Garlic and onion should go in first, then the peppers, then the tomatoes, and finally the eggplant and zucchini. Basil is added with the tomatoes and again at the end. To brighten the dish, add some lemon juice and lemon zest at the very end. Salt is sprinkled in stages as you cook the vegetables.
Ultimately we ended up with a lovely version of this dish that would rival even Julia or Remy’s. Served over steamed brown rice with a side dish of Smith Meadows’ fajitas sauteed in Indian spices, the only thing that was missing was a great glass of wine. For our Debut on September 2nd, I plan to remedy this by inviting Holli and John from 3 Fox Vineyard for a tasting of some of their Italian varietals. As you can see we are having a lot of fun with research and development for our cooking classes this fall. For more information on classes please email me or visit our class schedule page on the website.
In our next kitchen blog, I plan to tell you how we turned this recipe into a new hit for Smith Meadows Grill food cart at Arlington Courthouse and Takoma Park farmers markets. Stay tuned.