Don't let the name of my blog fool you. I am a big fan of vegetarian cooking.
When I learned that Sam chose a vegan theme for this edition of Is My Blog Burning (my first!), I delved into my past to try to recall some of my favorite recipes from my veg days.
You read that right. Once upon a time over a dozen years ago, I was a strict vegetarian. The same Brett, who goes out of his way to consume odd bits like barnacles, salt cod tripe, razor clams, anything with tentacles, the snouts, feet and everything in between on the pig, and who even named his blog after the lowly sardine, was a vegetarian for three whole years.
And I don't use the term vegetarian loosely. I was not one of those annoying people who proclaims himself "vegetarian" even though he eats chicken and fish and sometimes bacon (what the hell is that all about, I'd like to know). Nary a piece of flesh passed my lips during that time.
True, although I live in San Francisco and used to cook at the Greens restaurant, I never even considered becoming a vegan, fruitarian, raw foodist (sorry Sky), or breatharian. No, I needed my eggs and dairy like a heroine addict needs smack.
Ratatouille is one of those dishes that entered my repertoire back in those days and I've continued to make it several times every summer for the last decade and a half.
First, buy the best available, freshest vegetables (duh!). But really, please don't make this in the winter. It's a summer dish.
Second, cook each vegetable separately for maximum flavor impact before combining them. This means, fire roast the peppers (a gas burner works fine), quickly sauté the eggplants and zucchini until caramelized, and slowly stew the onions and garlic until meltingly tender.
Third, ideally, cook it the day before you want to eat it to allow the flavors to blend.
To trick carnivores into proclaiming afterwards "I can't believe I ate vegan!," I've served the admittedly mushy vegetable stew in a crispy, protein-packed chickpea flour crèpe (more like the Indian dosa than the traditional French crèpe, as it doesn't require any eggs or dairy). Socca, served at street stalls on the streets of Nice like pretzels are in New York, is a Provençal cousin of ratatouille. Although I don't know if they are ever served together in their native land, I've taken the liberty to wed these two kissing cousins (and I didn't even need a shotgun) into one satisfying dish.
Socca Crèpes filled with Ratatouille
1 lb. red or yellow peppers
1 lb. zucchini
1 lb. eggplant
1 lb. tomatoes
1/2 lb. sweet onion, such as Walla Walla or Vidalia
6 cloves garlic
4-6 T extra virgin olive oil
1 t dried herbes de Provence (or bundle of fresh basil, marjoram or thyme, tied with string and a bay leaf)
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 c chickpea flour (available at Indian grocery stores, where it's called besan)
1-1/4 c water
1/2 t fresh rosemary, chopped fine
2 t chives or parsley, chopped fine
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
4 t olive oil
Bring a medium sized pot of water to a boil.
Roast the peppers over a barbecue grill, the gas flame on your stove, or under your broiler until black and blistered all over. Place in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap or a plate to allow to continue cooking in their own steam. When cool, peel off skin (use a paper towel if needed). Cut into one-inch pieces, preferably triangles.
Cut zucchini and eggplants into one-inch pieces. Place eggplant pieces in a colander over a sink or bowl and sprinkle lavishly with salt. Allow to sit for at least half an hour.
Cut out a cone-shaped piece from the tops of the tomatoes and mark the bottoms with an X. In the boiling water, blanch the tomatoes for 20-30 seconds. Allow to cool briefly, then peel off and discard the skin. Cut tomatoes into one-inch pieces.
Dice the onions into 1/2-inch pieces and slice the garlic as thinly as possible. In a large, shallow pan over medium-low heat, sweat the onions in 2-3 tablespoons of the oil, covered, for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. After a few minutes, season the onions with salt. If the onions start to color, reduce the heat to low. Add garlic, cover, and cook 15 more minutes until meltingly tender. Remove the lid and add the herbs, the tomatoes and the cut peppers. Turn the heat up to medium and cook for about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, in another pan (preferably nonstick) large enough to hold all the zucchini in one layer, sauté the zucchini in 1-2 tablespoon oil over high heat. Your goal is to caramelize the zucchini all over, without letting it burn or cook all the way through. It should take about 5 minutes. Remove from pan, season with salt, and set aside when done.
Using several paper towels, gently squeeze the eggplant dry. Add another tablespoon of oil to the pan and sauté the eggplant as you did the zucchini, for about 5 minutes until caramelized.
When the tomatoes and peppers have cooked for about 10 minutes, add the zucchini. Cook for about 5 minutes until almost tender then add the eggplant and cook 5 more minutes until all the vegetables are tender. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Now that your ratatouille is finished (and preferably was made the day ahead), the dish will be ready in 15 minutes! Warm up your ratatouille and set aside.
Sift the chickpea flour into a bowl to remove the lumps. Add a little water and mix with a whisk until it forms a lump-free paste. Add the remaining water and the rest of the ingredients so that the batter is the thickness of heavy cream.
Heat an 8-inch steel crèpe pan or nonstick skillet over medium heat until very hot. Add 1 teaspoon of the oil. When oil starts smoking, pour a 1/4 cup (2 ounces) of water into pan, tilting it to spread evenly across the bottom of the pan.
Cook for about 3 minutes until the bottom has set and turned a nice dark brown. Flip it over and cook on other side for about a minute (second side will not brown much). Use the remaining batter to make more soccas, adding a fresh teaspoon of oil each time.
Turn crèpe onto a plate, spoon in ratatouille, roll it up and serve. To retain the crispness of the socca, these need to be served immediately.