After more than a week of no AC and no cooking, I'm back to it! But this time, it wasn't in my kitchen.
My best friends Beth, Robin & I typically spend our Friday nights tearing up the town. In the 2 years we've been friends, we've had a LOT of fun times together. Playing roller derby together, going to MMA fights, traveling to back-woods places in South Carolina, singing karaoke, and taking an amazing trip to Rio together, we always manage to have a seriously good time wherever we go. We're not really the type to get together for a quiet night in. But, when we were digging for plans last night and Beth mentioned something low-key, we decided maybe some wine and a movie were in order. I mentioned to Beth that I was right across from a seafood market and could pick something up for dinner, and our plans grew to included a home cooked meal.
Here's a picture of my best friends and I at one of our classier moments (I'm pretty sure one of us managed to do something very unclassy within moments of this being taken!)
Robin jumped on board with the plan and we found ourselves, at 9pm on a Friday night, gathered at Beth's house, red wine in hand. I'd picked up 2 nice tilapia fillets from a local seafood shop I've been wanted to check out for a while. I wasn't overwhelmed by their selection, but what they had was fresh, smelled clean, and looked good. I was overwhelmed when he tallied up my total for nearly a pound of tilapia and it came to $3.80. Total. I will definitely be going there for seafood again!
Beth is quite the greenthumb and has a very nice garden that's starting to produce some great veggies. She provided a freshly picked zucchini, some tomatoes grown in a friend's garden in Charleston, and freshly picked basil. I had 1/2 an eggplant at home waiting to be used, along with some onions, red pepper, and garlic. I realized this was exactly everything I needed to make some ratatouille to go along with our fish. How awesome that everything that went in to this super healthy, fresh summer veggie side dish came exclusively from gardens & farmers markets, and we had it all on hand. No run to the store necessary.
Ratatouille, traditionally prepared, can be quite the production. It involves cooking and seasoning each vegetable separately, then layering them in a casserole dish and baking. It can take well over 2 hours from first cut to plate. We were too hungry for that, plus, like I said, we're not that hung up on being classy and traditional. I went for the more modern, speedy preparation method: throw it all in a pan. All of the vegetables are cut in to a large dice, about an inch by an inch. You don't have to be precise, just make sure whatever size you choose is consistent for all the veggies. First went the chopped garlic (4 huge cloves) and the 1/2 an onion. Once the onion began to turn translucent, the red pepper followed. You can easily substitute green or yellow pepper, whatever you have on hand or growing in the garden. Once the pepper began to soften a bit, I added 1/2 a large eggplant.
A note on cooking with eggplant: eggplant is filled with liquid that can be quite bitter tasting sometimes. The key to making delicious eggplant is to salt it liberally after you've sliced or chopped it. Place it in a collandar and toss with a good amount of salt. Let it sit as long as possible, 20 minutes at least. The salt leeches out the bitter tasting liquid, leaving behind just the yummy eggplant flavor. It also collapses the little air pockets that make the eggplant flesh like a sponge, which causes them to soak up oil and become soggy. After salting and draining, pat the flesh dry with towels thoroughly. This will remove most of the salt and the liquid clinging to them. You're left with eggplant that will taste super and have a great texture.
Ok, eggplant has been added! It's important to stir the veggies a good bit as eggplant is notorious for sticking. Next in the pan were the tomatoes, between 2-3 chopped up. The tomatoes will release a good bit of juice that will thicken up as everything cooks. This makes a yummy sauce. If it starts to evaporate too much, don't worry. Just make sure you have a glass of red wine handy (good thing we did!) and add a bit. Last in was the zucchini, a bunch of chopped basil, salt, and pepper. If you add everything in this order, and let it cook over medium for about 2 minutes in between batches, everything should end up being cooked perfectly. Nothing should be mushy.
Beth cooked the fish in some white wine, and made some saffron rice and black beans to go on the side. The picture definitely doesn't do the dish justice, even if this isn't the most visually appealing dish ever. The smell from the ratatouille was outrageous, and even Robin, who's not a big fan of veggies, really enjoyed it. It's a really easy, quick way to make use of summer veggies that are abundant in farmers markets and gardens right now.
As we sat down at the table, which was made complete with cloth napkins, we commented on how grown up and classy this was of us. We just spent an hour together cooking a meal that smells, looks, and surely tastes delicious, and were eating at a table like civilized adults. To make sure we didn't stay too classy, Robin, who doesn't eat fish, made herself some polish kielbasa chopped up with sauerkraut and a side of mustard.
Promptly after finishing our meal, we felt the need to un-do all of the adult-like behavior we'd exhibited thus far. We popped in the movie "Despicable Me", an animated kids movie, and commenced to laughing like 5 year olds till we nearly peed in our pants. We all agreed that we could get used to doing this whole "low key, home cooking, drinking wine and watching movies at home" activity. I believe this will become as much a tradition as Thursday night karaoke once was. I'm looking forward to cooking more with my friends, but it's going to be a challenge. Beth is pretty healthy, and a pescatarian who has a deep love for all veggies and great food. Robin is rarely mistaken for a healthy eater, and has a deep love for hot ham & cheese sandwiches and isn't the biggest veggie eater in the world. It'll be interesting, but one thing I know for sure, is it's going to be fun.