There is something so freeing about this time of year. The weight of the world seems to slip off our shoulders and allows us to dive deep into the pleasures of the summer sun. Farmers markets are filled with the most beautiful, vibrant colors. Feasts are prepared ahead of time, allowing us more time to spend out of the kitchen and outside with loved ones.
Last week, I was completely captivated by the summer produce at the market. White and purple speckled eggplant, pinky-sized emerald okra pods and intensely dark zucchini caught my eye. Immediately, I knew I wanted to make ratatouille, and not just any ratatouille, Southern Ratatouille. I tossed in okra along with the other lovely summer vegetables, added a lot of red pepper flakes, omitted the Herbs de Provence and finished the dish with a few shakes of Tabasco sauce. The best thing about ratatouille is that it gets better as it sits in the fridge, so it’s the perfect dish to make ahead of time and can be served warm, cold or at room temperature, which made it the most wonderful dish for a picnic I was having the next day.
I drove along the long, dusty road to Arrington Vineyards to meet up with a dear friend. We found a quiet, shaded spot at the top of the vineyard and laid out our spread. She prepared a simple mozzarella and tomato salad and a beautiful cherry galette. I whipped out my ratatouille, a freshly baked baguette, fleur de sel oregano butter and fresh lemonade. We chatted all day about the summer, our plans for the 4th of July and mostly just laughed until the sun began to set and we went our separate ways.
On the way home, I began dreaming about my 4th of July menu while still buzzing over our picnic in the vineyards. I decided to make a peach and basil galette, sweetened with raw honey, stone fruit summer sangria, vanilla ice cream served with fresh berries and sea salt caramels.
The air was unseasonably cool as the sun began to set on the 4th of July. Our linen draped table proudly held our summer creations. Close friends gathered together. Laughter and fireflies filled the air. And, then there were fireworks.
Now, let me explain. About half of the gathering consisted of Australians, and in Australia, it’s illegal to pop fireworks. Therefore, the overall response to the fireworks was unbelievable! I was more entertained by their squeals and wide eyes than the actual explosives. My crème brûlée torch, which I set out for toasting marshmallows, was being slightly abused as it was being used to light the fuse for the fireworks. All of a sudden, one of the rockets fell over and completely bombed us! The children spent the rest of the evening underneath the table in sheer terror and were seemingly forming an evacuation plan in case of an emergency (There may have been a few adults hiding under there as well.)
Toward the end of the evening, I began pecking away at the drunken fruit in the bottom of my sangria jar as the smoke from the fireworks cleared, I sat back and relaxed as the fireflies flickered away in the distance and the laughter of our group softly bubbled away like a gently simmering pot of blackberry jam. I felt the weight of the world fall off my shoulders in the freedom of the setting summer sun on this wonderful 4th of July.
Recipe: Southern Ratatouille
Inspired by Buvette
Note: This has become my favorite ratatouille recipe because of its simplicity and ease. It’s a wonderful summertime recipe that be served warm, cold or at room temperature. My favorite way to eat ratatouille is on a heavily buttered baguette finished with a sprinkling of fleur de sel.
2 tablespoons of unsalted butter
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
1 small yellow onion, finely diced
2 small tomatoes, cut into ½ -inch dice
1 red bell pepper, cut into ½ -inch dice
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 medium-sized eggplant, cut into ½ -inch dice
Handful of okra pods, trimmed and cut into small rounds
1 zucchini, trimmed and cut into ½ -inch dice
1 teaspoon of red pepper flakes
3 teaspoons of Tabasco Green Jalapeño Pepper Sauce
Sea salt, to taste
Place the butter and olive oil in large, heavy pot over medium heat. Add the onion, tomatoes, bell pepper and garlic, and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally until the vegetables soften, about 10 minutes. Add the eggplant and okra rounds and another pinch of salt and cook for another 10 minutes. Lastly, add the zucchini and the red pepper flakes. Stir and cook for a final 15 minutes (35 minutes total), or until all of the vegetables are soft. If the mixture begins to look a little dry, add 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Take off the heat and stir in the Tabasco Green Pepper Sauce and add more salt if needed.
Ratatouille can be made ahead and will last up to a week in the refrigerator.
Recipe: Summer Stone Fruit Sangria
Combine 3 (750ml) bottles of dry white wine, ½ cup of brandy, 1 pound of sliced peaches and 1 pound of pitted cherries in a large container and chill overnight. Right before serving, add a liter of sparking water to the sangria. Enjoy!