“…I head out to the garden after marking my page, basket and scissors in hand. I’m after fresh vegetables and herbs, and there are plenty to be had. Green and purple basil lend their broad-leafed sweet warmth to the stew’s symphony without over-powering. Rosemary has the lead with a wild, aromatic flavor. Fennel joins the chorus with its sweet, hot tenor, and tomatoes sing their acid soprano in harmony with the rest. Shaped like comical water balloons, sticky summer squash and dry eggplant form the base of the recipe.
Fresh ingredient from the garden are always the best kind. There’s nothing quite like biting into a carrot and tasting your own backyard, its unique acidity, nutrients, and soil content. In the same way, there’s nothing quite like your own cooking. It’s as unique as you are, and shaped not only by what you learn, but how you learn it and who you learn it from.
I grew up in an Alabama kitchen, watching my mom make banana bread while my grandfather made candied pecans with nuts from his own farm. When we moved to Illinois, I helped my neighbors patato latkes into round, flat discs during the days of Hanukah, though I am Christian. Here in Virginia, I occasionally help in the church kitchen with Mark, a construction worker and former Marriott chef, whose daughter is a professional chef herself. Each one has taught me something special, from the best way to make spaghetti sauce to the value of fresh, raw vegetables.
Back inside, I put on a movie and start chopping vegetables. As the strains of the opening credits yawn into a forgettable musical about France, I focus on the knives in front of me. Serrated knives bite easily into the rinds of tough eggplants and squash while sharp, flat paring knives handle the skins of carrots and potatoes, but neither of those is right for a tomato.
Tomatoes are the hardest to cut, despite their squishiness, because the skins and seeds are both bitter and hard to remove. Getting rid of them is a complex process, involving boiling- and ice-water, a paring knife hooked like a claw, and a strainer, but after about an hour, I have nearly a quart of mushy tomato guts, tomato juice, and blended tomato paste to show for my effort.
Now everything is separated into different bowls, to be dumped into the pot as each step is completed. This is perhaps the most important step of the process. Add the carrots too late, and they’ll never soften, but add the potatoes too early and they dissolve, losing their flavor and texture. Spices go last, because their flavor escapes in the steam, and the various parts of tomatoes are used in nearly every step. Red wine bolsters the tomato juice, lending only acid and flavor, as the alcohol evaporates in the heat. Finally, after an hour of dumping ingredients and adjusting the heat, the ratatouille is ready to sit for a while, simmering the vegetables to softness and mixing the various flavors together. I wander off for a few minutes, thinking about my past….”