I heard the term "elastic recipes" long enough ago that I've forgotten where. Or, more accurately, I'm sure I read it. The idea is that some recipes can flex to the amount of ingredients you have. If you've cooked for a length of time, I bet you have at least one of these somewhere in your brain or cookbook.
There are some things that do not lend themselves well to this approach. When I make bread, for example, no matter how many loaves I make, I repeat the recipe for each one. Canning recipes, same thing. But if I'm making my gramma's biscuits, I just go by how much flour I have, or how many people want biscuits.
Another favorite elastic recipe, especially this time of year, is ratatouille. I'm going to give you the general breakdown, with some of my notes. Feel free to take it and run with it and make it your own. This makes a fuckton of ratatouille, but you could easily scale up or down for whatever size crowd you're serving. Just keep your general proportions the same, and you'll be fine. I have faith in you.
- 1 lb each: eggplant, squash, tomato, bell pepper
I like a good medium eggplant, a small zucchini, a small yellow (crookneck) squash, a small red bell pepper, a small green bell pepper - this gives a nice variety of color and texture. If you can get heirloom tomatoes, do so. It will take longer to cook but the flavor is worth the effort.
- 1 medium onion
- 2 cloves (or more if you like) garlic
- several tablespoons olive oil
- salt to taste plus some for the eggplant
- optional: 1/2 lb mushrooms
- optional: parmigiano-reggiano cheese (you know, parmesan cheese. But none of that shaker crap, get real cheese, OK? You'll thank me later.)
- Gear: Dutch oven (cast iron is nice!), colander, chef knife, cutting board, something to stir the veggies with
So, basic idea: add each of the veg into some olive oil to soften and cook down. Once you have all the veg in, let it simmer until everything is cooked through and the flavors are nicely blended. Put cheese on top and serve hot, or save it and serve cold tomorrow.
Here's how you do it:
1. Dice the eggplant into 1/2-3/4 inch pieces. Salt generously and pop them into a colander to drain. They will take 15-20 minutes, so this is a good time to get everything else together. You can also do all your knife work here if you like. Good mise now saves you insanity and heartbreak later. Just trust me on this.
2. Dice the onion into 1/2 inch pieces. Heat enough olive oil to cover the bottom of your Dutch oven and let the onion soften over medium heat until they're soft, translucent, and somewhat fragrant. I salt the onion just a little bit, and salt each vegetable lightly as I add it. Except the eggplant because you did that already.
3. While the onion is softening, dice up the rest of your veggies. Everything should be in roughly 1/2 inch cubes. Save all the guts of the tomatoes, they go in too.
4. Add in the bell peppers when the onions are translucent. Salt at this point is up to you - I've noted what I do. Also make sure you have enough oil - it's easier to add more than to take any out.
5. Add in the squash when the bell peppers are just about soft.
6. While the squash are cooking down, rinse and squeeze out the eggplant. I know, it sounds weird, but it helps. Also, if you did it right, you put way too much salt for eating, so you need to rinse most of it off. Squeezing just helps get the extra water out. Feel free to substitute "blot in a towel" for "squeeze" - whatever you're comfortable with.
7. In go the eggplant, mushrooms, and garlic. These shouldn't take more than a few minutes to start to cook down.
8. When everything else except the cheese is in, and the eggplant is softening up, add the tomato with all the juice and such. At this point you should be seeing the beginning of what will be a lovely vegetable stew.
9. A few notes: I don't generally have to add any liquid to this, since the veggies are mostly water. If you do need to, feel free to add vegetable or chicken stock. Or, you know, wine if you're so inclined. I find this is better without the wine, honestly, but preference and all that jazz. Also, be patient and let each ingredient cook up a bit before you add the next, at least until the eggplant. It's time consuming, I know, but it's so worth it.
10. Stir everything up a bit, cut the heat down to medium-low, cover and simmer. This part takes anywhere from 30 minutes on, depending on how much you're making and your stove. Alternately you can put it in a 350 degree oven for the same amount of time. What you're looking for is a rich vegetable stew that tastes like everything jumped into a hot tub together and had a fun party.
11. Don't forget the cheese! When your stew is done cooking, let it stand for 5 minutes with the lid off, then grate or shave some Parm on top, to your liking. I've been known to cover the top with cheese then pop it under the broiler for 2-3 minutes for some golden brown deliciousness. That may not be strictly authentic, but it's strictly delicious and I'm all for it.