Wednesday, September 21, 2011

$5 Challenge and Melissa Clark's Genius Ratatouille

When I heard about the Slow Food USA $5 Challenge I immediately started thinking of what I might be able to make and what I could easily share with friends on September 17th. I knew whatever I made would be primarily vegetable based and that meat would probably not be included. Soups, salads, pastas and sandwiches all came to mind and then passed. When the October issue of Food & Wine arrived in my mailbox I flipped through it like I always do but was stopped short on Melissa Clark's "Speedy Ratatouille with Goat Cheese" because it looked so enticing I wanted to eat it off the page. At this point, it was less than a week away from the 17th and I realized how perfect ratatouille would be to for the $5 meal; all the vegetables it uses would be in season and at the market, I knew just who to buy goat cheese from at Union Square and a lovely locally made baguette would go great with the stew.   Also, since I wanted to picnic in the park, for serving, ratatouille would travel well and be easy to serve alfresco. I had found a winner! 

Saturday morning I headed to the Union Square Greenmarket in the crisp pre-autumn air to find all the ingredients I needed for the ratatouille. After dropping off my compost I tend to start out on the Saturday market by heading directly to Migliorelli for some zucchini, maybe some radishes or greens and then carry on. From Migliorelli I bought the eggplant, zucchini, summer squash, plum tomatoes, and basil. 

Next I made my way through the crowded market in search of those elusive red bell peppers. I found a good one at S&SO Produce Farms and the onions I needed, too. (And filled with the excitement of fall's onset I picked up a small acorn squash which got curried for dinner this week.) Next I needed some goat cheese so I headed straight for Patches of Star Dairy and picked up 4 oz. of lightly salted chèvre (which FYI is seriously amazing). At home I already had garlic that I probably bought from Paffenroth at Union Square and the only two non-local (but still pretty "slow") ingredients I used were olive oil I'd bought at Stew Leonard's and a lemon from Fairway Market. On my way home I picked up a baguette from Bread Alone at the East 82nd street greenmarket (they are at Union Square on Fridays). 

When it was time to start cooking I took everything out of the fridge and set out to do a complete mise-en-place. Melissa Clark's recipe is so wonderful because she cooks all the vegetables in shifts to keep them bright and fresh tasting and only at the end does everything stew together for about 15 minutes. So it was very important that I had everything set-up to go into the pot one at a time.  

Usually I am only cooking for myself and only with two or three vegetables that need prepping, so getting all of these ingredients sliced and diced took a bit more time than I am used to (that is more than 2 minutes). But the finished product of the mise all ready to go gave me a profound sense of satisfaction. 
Clark's recipe is very straight forward and once you make it once or twice I think you would be able to do it by heart. Using a dutch oven or large pot (I used a sizable sauce pan) you add some of the oil and one of the veggies, cook a for about 5 minutes, add some of the garlic cook for another minute, remove. Her recipe is genius because instead of all the vegetables breaking down and becoming a mushy stew, everything stays toothsome and brightly flavored and colored. The addition of fresh basil, a splash of lemon juice, and some lemon zest enlivens the whole dish. The week before I had bought lavender for baking at the Greenmarket from Lavender by the Bay so I added about a teaspoon to bring out some of the traditional flavors of ratatouille, which comes from southern France. 

When the stew was all finished I let it cool until my guests arrived and we packed up the ratatouille with the bread, goat cheese, plates, silverware, napkins, blankets, cups, wine and desserts. There is a park by my house that runs along the East River and is the perfect place for a picnic, walk or jog. I timed dinner to be earlier in the evening than I would normally have so we still had some daylight left to enjoy our meal. It was a lovely evening in the park and we all loved the ratatouille, wine and desserts! This ratatouille is a dish that will be added to my repertoire and my go-to for making the Provençal meal.  
Jocelin & Chef Eddo both enjoyed their ratatouille very much!
We all raved about the goat cheese.
Now let's get down to numbers. The following amounts were what is called for in the Speedy Ratatouille Recipe. This is the breakdown of the ingredients list, where the food came from, how much it cost and then the total for the meal:

Total Cost
Eggplant, 1 pound
Zucchini, 1
Yellow Squash
Plum tomatoes, 2 pounds
Basil, 1 cup
Onions, 2 small-medium
S&SO Produce Farms
Red bell pepper, 1
S&SO Produce Farms
Garlic, 5 cloves
About $1.00
Goat Cheese, ½ cup (4 oz)
Patches of Star Dairy Farm
$5.00/4 oz.
Baguette, ½ loaf
Bread Alone
Lavender, ¼ oz.
Lavender by the Bay
$5.00/2 oz.
Olive Oil, ½ cup
Stew Leonard’s
$5.00/ 25 oz. bottle
Lemon, ½ of 1
Fairway Market
Salt & Pepper
Whole Foods/Gristeades
No more than $0.50

Total Cost Of All Food
*Garlic was bought earlier in the season

Number of Servings

Cost per person

I also wanted to show how far any of my ingredients may have traveled to get to my picnic. All the farms/producers have green pins. The olive oil and lemon are shown as grocery stores with blue pins. Where we picnic-ed is show with a pink pin. And Union Square gets its own special green pushpin since all the farms I bought from bring their goods there and then I take them home. The map is interactive and you can click on the pins for more information about the farm, what I bought there, zoom in and out, etc. (My friend Kyle helped me get started with the mapping- Thank you, Kyle!).

View Larger Map
The $5 Challenge was a great time for me. I loved all the aspects of it- menu planning, shopping for food, cooking, hosting the dinner and best of all eating! I love knowing where my food comes from, being able to talk to the people who grew or harvested it and feeling good about what I'm putting in my body. Being so passionate about food I can't imagine not concerning myself with the politics of what I eat. 

Slow food is a reality and the more we question whether or not the apples in the grocery store are local, how the animals we eat are raised and what that crazy sounding ingredient in the box of cookies really is- the more we will make changes to our food system. For me the future of how we grow and get our food is very bright and if we all keep working together and having great events like the Slow Food $5 Challenge we will make changes happen faster! 
Clean plates are always a good sign!

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