"Exact proportions aren't terribly important," Julia Child used to say about stews and soups, as she taught us to relax and have fun with serious cooking. Nowhere does that concept apply more than to this slow cooker ratatouille (pronounced rat ah TOO eee), a classic French vegetable stew that uses everything I can find in my garden or at our local farmers' markets right now: eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers, potatoes and thyme. If you have more of one thing than another, that's fine. Want to add some olives? Fine. Have white mushrooms instead of portobellos? Fine. Stick in a small sprig of rosemary? Fine. Best of all, ratatouille works as a pasta sauce, an omelet filling, a rice topper, a side dish for grilled fish or chicken, a sandwich stuffer... well, you get the idea. It's versatile, healthy and vegan, and the slow cooker makes it oh-so-easy. I like my ratatouille vegetables cut into big chunks, and they'll hold up much better in the slow cooker if you go big, too.
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In Adam's Rib, one of my favorite (albeit dated) movies, married lawyers Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy find themselves with the late-night munchies. They head to the kitchen of their posh apartment, where Kate, in her evening gown, raids the refrigerator and comes up with an armful of leftovers. "How about curry?" she asks, and in a Hollywood second, she's got a beautiful lamb curry on the table. With a little help from ingredients in the pantry, you can whip up a curry in a Hollywood second -- well, in 20 minutes -- and you don't need to be wearing an evening gown or tuxedo to do it. This recipe is moderately hot, so feel free to reduce the amount of curry paste for a milder version. I like medium-hot Thai red curry best, but this recipe will be delicious with any curry paste you have on hand. Look for the Mae Ploy or Amoy brands in an Asian grocery store.
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There's no one recipe for ropa vieja, the shredded beef dish that originated in the Canary Islands and migrated to the Americas with Spanish traders, but flank steak, tomato, onion and cumin are common denominators. Sometimes ropa vieja contains potatoes, or olives, or beans, but I stick with a basic Cuban-inspired version: beef, flavored with chopped tomatoes and green chile peppers (a.k.a. Ro*Tel), spices, and a cilantro kick from store-bought salsa. Ropa vieja means "old clothes", a nod to the resemblance of the cooked meat to tattered rags. This recipe starts and ends in the slow cooker (crockpot), and it couldn't be easier. The "rags" practically melt in your mouth.
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When Ted and I moved to a wooded part of Rhode Island, we never intended to become gumbo filé farmers. We didn't know that in our woods, among the pine and oak and maple, we would find several sassafras trees, or that sassafras -- often associated with the southern states -- actually is native to New England. And we didn't know that we could make filé powder from the dried, pulverized leaves of our very own sassafras trees. Filé (pronounced FEE-lay, and also called gumbo filé) lends an exotic, flowery, "root beer" flavor to gumbo, and when stirred in at the end of the cooking (as it always should be), it acts as a thickener. Though filé is most often associated with Cajun and Creole cuisine, it was the Choctaw Indians who first used it in their cooking, long before the Acadians arrived in Louisiana. I use it for gumbo, of course, and to thicken stews and lentil soups.
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