Sunday, September 9, 2012

Garden Ragu

It's not really a revelation that I love cooking from scratch. And since I'm fond of avoiding things out of a jar or can whenever possible, September is a banner month for me because of tomato season. Case in point:  Bill and I had a sudden surplus of tomatoes from the four plants we brought home from an area nursery one sunny day in early June.  We slept late this morning, and after a walk to soak in some sun, were hungry for something of substance.  Both of us took one look at the soft orange and red globes on the counter and threw ourselves into another collaboration: He diced the onions, I chopped the tomatoes, and then set some chicken stock in a sauce pan to boil (see recipe below for complete details).

It was a single-dish, brunch inspired by Chef Suvir Saran's Meatless Ragu that he made yesterday at the 12th Annual Saratoga Wine & Food and Fall Ferrari Festival in Saratoga Springs. Suvir was the emcee for the Adirondack Appliance Cast Iron Chef Final Round between Jaime Ortiz of the Angelo Mazzone restaurant empire in Albany and Schenectady and Patrick Longton of The Wishing Well in Saratoga Springs.  Later, Suvir headed to the Adirondack Appliance tent  to sign copies of his latest cookbook, "Masala Farm," and offer a few pointers on healthy, delicious eating.

"I don't know if I'm changing lives, but I hope I am," said Saran as he surveyed the hundreds who'd turned out for the competition and to sample the wines and cheeses of Italy. "I want people to know that eating foods that are healthy can actually be quite a delicious experience." And then he got to work chopping vegetables for his Meatless Ragu.

Delicious indeed. My meatless ragu didn't mimic his ingredients exactly, but it was a beautiful blend of ingredients straight from the soil:  onions, tomatoes, rosemary, oregano, and olive oil.  This ragu even included some tomato tops and bottoms that normally would have been tossed because they're not symmetrical enough to fit in a sandwich.  Trust me, they still taste like great tomatoes and work beautifully in a sauce.  I stockpile them in tupperware and by week's end have a healthy supply.

When doing a ragu like this, the ingredients may be simple, but there's an undeniable time investment required, and let me be clear about this:  THAT'S OK!   If you believe that punching 4:00 minutes into a microwave digit panel is enough time spent on a meal, I urge you to reconsider, for reasons revolving around flavor, health, and economics.  At the risk of sounding trite, you really are what you eat.  And maybe it's not practical to cook like this everyday, but why not spend an hour on a weekend and make something truly delightful?

Yes, this ragu is a bit like a toddler in that it needs constant supervision. You can walk away for a minute or two but for best results you've got to stir it (and the pasta) every few minutes, and watch to make sure the flame's not too high.  If it cooks too fast the vegetables just won't have the same texture or sweetness.  Blended with al dente penne, this chunky ragu accented with fresh herbs was divine and healthy in equal measure. Therefore, I felt a moral obligation to post this on a sunny Sunday afternoon, in hopes that not some but ALL of you will give tomato and onion chopping a chance.  You just may even enjoy being an alchemist in the kitchen and give the microwave a few days off.

Garden Ragu
(Like all home-cooking, use what you have available plus instinct to guide you. This isn't baking, so exact amounts aren't crucial)

2 medium sized onions, diced
4-6 large tomatoes, diced or cut in chunks
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt and Sugar to taste
2 springs of fresh Rosemary, roughly chopped
1 small handful of fresh Oregano, roughly chopped
(if you don't have fresh, use a tablespoon of dried for each)

For pasta
1 cup dried penne pasta (I use Bio-Nature gluten-free pasta)
1/2 to 1 cup chicken or vegetable stock

In a large skillet, heat oil until warm and add the onions. Extra Virgin Olive Oil smokes easily so don't have the heat too high.  Saute the onions until soft and translucent, not caramelized. Add chopped tomatoes and simmer over low to medium heat, stirring every few minutes to ensure vegetables cook evenly. Onions and tomatoes should be well oiled, so add more oil as needed.

While vegetables simmer and get softer, bring 1/2 cup chicken stock to boil in medium sized saucepan. Add penne.  There should be enough liquid so that the pasta is a little more than submerged. Turn heat down, add a spoonful of oil, and stir.  Cover when not stirring, pasta should be gently simmering and stirred every few minutes so it doesn't stick together.

When vegetables have become soft and chunky, add fresh herbs and mix well. Then add a bit of salt and sugar to taste (about a teaspoon each). If vegetables are nicely oiled but feel a little dry and not saucy enough, add a tiny bit of hot water to the pan. By this time, pasta should have absorbed all the liquid to become al dente (the Italians use this term for pasta that's not mushy). Add pasta to the saucepan of ragu and stir till it's all well blended.  Serve immediately.  Normally I love pasta with a sprinkling of Peccorino, but this ragu is so good on its own, I don't want the delicate flavors to be overpowered so I skip it.  Buon Appetito!

Chef and cookbook author Suvir Saran makes his Meatless Ragu at the Adirondack Appliance booth at the Sept. 8 Saratoga Wine & Food and Fall Ferrari Festival at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center

The next morning, inspired by Suvir Saran's meatless creation, I made my own version of a ragu sans beef

Add a little gluten-free penne and it's pure magic

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