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Free Yourself from the Kitchen

I love to cook. That said, on days when a hike beckons, or a breeze eases off the ponds and I just want to sit Gerry Hoganon the deck, I love to be liberated from the kitchen!

Having a second home in the mountains is a magnet for desert dwelling friends and family, especially when the temperatures hover in the triple digits on the desert floor and up here it’s a balmy 70F plus. Over the past three years I’ve figured out ‘always have available’ dishes so that when friends call and say “we’re on our way, what can we bring” I can make suggestions knowing that we can throw a great meal together in minutes and everyone has freedom from the kitchen. That way I love my guests and get my deck time too.

My four absolute standbys during the summer months are risotto, ratatouille, preserved lemon and ginger polenta, and roasted lemon and olive stuffed chicken. I consider them in the same category as a mix and match wardrobe when traveling – I can rummage through fridge and freezer and come up with any number of variations on my basic four - and since no man can resist a BBQ , I usually hand over the cooking of the accessories - you never hear me complain about losing control!

polenta and ratatouille

Some of the ways I mix and match the polenta:
(recipe follows)

Soft, right out of the oven with either shrimp quick sauteed or on the BBQ. Throw in a snow pea salad with an Asian style dressing and dinner is ready.

Chilled, sliced, brushed with olive oil and put on the grill – serve with one of the fancy sausages so readily available – my favorite is a Chicken Mango one that I get at Costco. Add a fresh salad and you’re set.

Chilled, sliced and reheated on the BBQ or in a skillet with a little olive oil – serve with lamb chops and add a dollop of the room temperature ratatouille to the plate for a Mediterranean style feast.

Cut into wedges, split, made into a ‘sandwich’ with thinly sliced feta – drizzled with a little olive oil and toasted either under the broiler, on the BBQ or in a toaster oven. Serve with a side salad of cucumber and tomatoes with a light, citrusy vinaigrette.

Polenta with Preserved Lemon and Fresh Ginger

Polenta can be ho-hum or sublime! This recipe is the latter. I wish I could take credit for the genius behind it. It comes from the book Blue Ginger: East Meets West Cooking with Ming Tsai. I have not messed with the recipe other than to omit the salt ( with the preserved lemon you need any) but I have changed chef’s cooking technique – it simply didn’t work. The book implies this serves 4 – must be giants! There are eight substantial servings.

  • 5 TBS butter
  • ¼ cup finely chopped shallots
  • 2 TBS finely chopped fresh ginger root
  • 1 cup medium grain polenta (I use Golden Pheasant brand)
  • ¼ cup diced preserved lemons pulp and rind (I preserve some every year but they are available in good grocery stores and definitely in a middle-eastern market.
  • 4 cups chicken stock (try using the stock leftover from the roast aromatic chicken)
  • Freshly ground black pepper

  • Pre-heat oven to 325F. Heat a large, ovenproof saucepan over medium heat. Add 1 TBS butter – swirl to coat bottom of pan. Add the shallots and ginger. Sauté about 6 minutes or until soft.
Add polenta, preserved lemon, remaining butter and stock, Season with the pepper.
Cover tightly with foil. Place in the oven and bake 45 minutes. Remove from oven, stir carefully. Return to oven and increase heat to 375F. Bake an additional 20 minutes.
An alternative cooking method is to stand over the pot and stir constantly for 20 or more minutes until the pollen's thickens.

Remove from oven, stir and either serve hot as a soft polenta or pour into a greased 2” deep serving dish; cover tightly with plastic wrap, cool and then refrigerate. The polenta will set up so that you can slice it. Polenta DOES NOT freeze well but will hold 4-5 days refrigerated.

Now for the The Ratatouille (recipe follows)

We prefer it served at room temperature.

All on it’s own with a chunk of crusty bread. Great lunch!

As a side dish to any grilled or roasted white meat (pork, chicken, game hen)

As a side dish to compliment roasted cod steak

Warm over a slice of polenta

As a side to spanakopeta

Ratatouille is a wonderful summer garden, farmers’ market bounty dish. Garnish with fresh herbs, tear off a chunk of peasant style bread, pour a glass of ice-cold Pinot Grigio, and imagine yourself in Tuscany. A poorly made, mushy ratatouille is an insult to the dish! This version keeps the vegetable chunks recognizable and allows the flavors to mellow.

About amounts - equal amounts of the following however, don’t get uptight if you don’t have the exact amounts of each. This is the kind of recipe that isn’t afraid of minor substitutions – e.g. no red peppers, use all green. You want to end up with roughly 9 cups of vegetables including onion and a few sprigs each of marjoram, oregano, rosemary and basil.

  • When using 2 cups of each vegetable use 1 cup of red Onion and 4 cloves of garlic, juice of 1 lemon, 1 Tbs. balsamic vinegar.
  • When doubling the recipe use 2 cups red onion and 6 cloves garlic, juice 1 ½ large lemons, 2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar.
The two-cup of each measure makes about 8-10 side dish servings; the 4 cup serves a mini army and is ideal for large group gatherings.
Ratatouille will hold, refrigerated 3-4 days. If you are not using it all at once, bring the amount you want to use to room temperature. It does not freeze well.

If you prep in the following order you’ll save time.
Enough for two cups of each of the following:
  • Young eggplant trimmed and cut into a bit bigger than 1” chunks.
  • Small zucchini trimmed and cut into a bit bigger than 1” chunks
  • Place zucchini and eggplant in a colander – sprinkle with sea salt. Set aside while you prep 2 Cups each of peppers into approximate 1” chunks and quarter the tomatoes (2 Cups)

  • Slice the onion into thin slivers you want about 1 Cup
  • Chop the garlic into thirds or quarters – little chunks but not a fine dice.

  • Film a deep sauté pan with 2 Tbs olive oil. Add the garlic and onion before the oil gets hot. Sauté gently until onion is soft – 5-6 minutes.
  • Meanwhile rinse the eggplant and zucchini under cold water. Dry in a cloth kitchen towel. Add to the onions and cook, stirring gently for about 3 minutes. You may want to add another TBS olive oil at this stage.
  • Add the peppers, stir in and cook about 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes, lemon juice and balsamic. Stir gently; bring to a simmer season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cook for 10 minutes.
  • Add a mixture of fresh herbs – about ¼ cup total – basil, oregano, marjoram and rosemary. Transfer to an oven- proof casserole, cover and bake at 335F for 45 minutes.

And Enter The Rissotto

One of my favorite summer variations is made with asparagus. It reheats beautifully and freezes well. Is great with fish, shrimp, chicken. For lunch we sometimes reheat in the microwave. Put it in a small, shallow bowl. Make an indentation in the center, drop in an egg – prick the yolk with a very sharp knife point – microwave about a minute until the egg is set. Microwaving time will vary with the power of your microwave. You’ll find any number of recipes for Risotto – the trick is to use good, Arborio rice and not to hurry the cooking process. If the idea of stirring for 30 minutes doesn’t appeal, look up Babara Kafka’s recipe in Microwave Gourmet.

Last but not Least - The Chicken(click here for recipe)

Goes with polenta, ratatouille, risotto – make it into sandwiches, salads - so versatile. Save the cooking liquids that form and use them as a base for a heavenly, lemon scented stock. One of my brothers used to own a pub with a highly rated restaurant. He told me the secret of success in the restaurant business was “chicken, chicken and chicken” – meaning a few good ingredients used multiple ways.

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