Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Midsummer Vegetable Ragoût of Baby Root Vegetables, Summer Squash & Green Beans

From early spring to late fall—basically my "market" season—there is always an abundant mix of vegetables in my refrigerator and on my kitchen counter. This means that even if there is "nothing" in the house for dinner, I can always make a mixed vegetable ragoût of some sort for our evening meal. In my mind, a vegetable ragoût is a medley of vegetables that are finished all together in a small amount of a flavorful liquid. It is not quite broth-y enough to be a soup or a stew, but like a soup or stew, the overall effect is that of a harmonious whole. Served with a grain pilaf, polenta, mashed potatoes, a starchy gratin, or some nice crusty bread and cheese, a vegetable ragoût can be the star of the meal. It can also be a wonderful supporting player to a grilled or sautéed piece of meat or fish.

When combining vegetables for a ragoût, remember that in general "foods that grow together go together". So, if all the vegetables you plan to put in your ragoût grew in the same part of the country, at around the same time (and of course this will be true if you are getting your ingredients from local sources), then you don't need to worry too much about whether you will have a pleasing combination.

To me, the greater difficulty lies in limiting yourself. There is such an abundance this time of year, it would be easy to include so many different kinds of vegetables that the individual character of each vegetable is lost. I generally try and limit my selection to 3 to 5 vegetables—you could of course use more (a classic Moroccan Tagine has seven)—but 3 to 5 gives plenty of variety without being too busy.

For the kind of ragoût I had in mind last night I like to have a roughly even mix of root vegetables and green vegetables—and then for a uniform look, about equal quantities of each vegetable. But another kind of ragoût might feature a large quantity of one vegetable and an equal amount of a variety of several others. Furthermore (not to stray too far from my topic here—but to give you an idea of the possibilities) a ragoût does not need to contain any root vegetables—one of my favorite summer ragoûts contains eggplant, peppers, onions, tomatoes and chickpeas.... Or, a ragoût could be made with all root vegetables....or all green vegetables.... This post today is just a narrow window into the vast world of vegetable ragoûts.

For the ragoût that I made yesterday evening, I chose turnips, carrots, baby summer squash and green beans. Earlier in the season, adding kohlrabi to the root vegetables or peas to the green vegetables would have been nice. Later in the summer, shelling beans add variety and substance. Wilted spinach or chard would be another good addition.

When it comes to the actual cooking process, it is important to consider each vegetable separately. Group the vegetables according to how long each will take to cook and also according to the cooking process you will use for those vegetables. The root vegetables will take roughly the same amount of time to cook—as long as they are cut in pieces that are similar in size. Green vegetables will take much less time to cook and they can simply be added to the ragoût when the root vegetables are half to two-thirds cooked.

The final flavor of a ragoût made in this way will be very good. Unfortunately, the textures of the vegetables might be less than perfect—some or all of the green vegetables might become overcooked while waiting for one or more of the other vegetables to cook to tenderness. It is impossible to estimate perfectly when all of the vegetables will be done. The way to solve this problem is to cook some of the vegetables separately and then combine all of the vegetables together at the end for a brief simmer to allow all of the flavors to blend. Not only does this process give more control to the cook, but it provides the option of choosing different cooking methods for the green vegetables—blanching for peas or green beans, longer stewing for shell beans, sautéing for summer squash and a quick braise or sauté for any greens you might want to add. Each vegetable reaches its perfect doneness this way. Some of the blanching or stewing liquids from the cooking of these individual vegetables can be used in the finishing of the ragoût to contribute to the finished flavor.

Once you have chosen your vegetables and the cooking methods you will be using, you can begin to think about herbs, spices and the sort of liquid you will want to use. I made a simple French-inspired dish of braised baby root vegetables, sautéed summer squash, and blanched green beans, seasoned with garlic, thyme, chives and roast chicken jus. But your choices are almost without limit—as I mentioned above, the world of ragoûts is vast—Spanish-inspired seasoned with saffron, paprika and tomato...Thai with green curry paste, lime and coconut milk.... It would be a monumental task to expound at length on flavor variations here. I love vegetables, so I am sure that vegetable ragoûts will make numerous appearances here in the future. But for now, if you like the idea of the vegetable ragoût and want some more specific recipes, Deborah Madison's cookbooks contain numerous examples (particularly Local Flavors, Vegetarian Suppers and Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone).

I served my French-inspired, midsummer vegetable ragoût with a couscous pilaf that included red onions, pine nuts and currants. But it would have been good with a piece of salmon or some soft polenta or a creamy potato gratin or...

Midsummer Vegetable Ragoût (for 2)

Prepare the vegetables: Peel and trim 4 small carrots (about 4 oz.) and cut 1/2-inch thick on a long diagonal. Peel and trim 3 small turnips (about 5 oz.) and cut into 1/2-inch wedges. Top and tail a couple of handfuls of green beans. Cut on the diagonal into 2-inch lengths. Wash the baby squash and cut into uniform chunks or wedges to go with the size of carrots and turnips.

In a sauté pan large enough to hold the carrots and turnips in a single layer, heat some olive oil and a little butter over medium high heat until the butter is melted and the foam subsides. Add the carrots and turnips along with a generous pinch of salt and sauté, tossing occasionally until the vegetables are browned in spots. Add a clove of minced garlic and a tablespoon or so of picked fresh thyme.

Continue to sauté until the garlic is fragrant—about a minute. Add enough liquid to come half way up the sides of the vegetables in the pan. Water is fine. If you have chicken stock, even better. I had some roast chicken jus that I had frozen after I roasted the chicken for my Chicken and Cantaloupe Salad, so I used that:

Reduce the heat and cover the pan. Gently simmer the vegetables until they are just tender. Check the vegetables occasionally as they cook and add more liquid as necessary to maintain about a quarter inch depth in the pan.

While the root vegetables cook, sauté the squash in a little butter until golden and barely tender. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

Blanch the green beans in boiling salted water until tender. Scoop them out and spread on a towel.

To finish the ragoût, uncover the root vegetables and increase the heat to maintain a simmer.

Add the squash and beans and more broth (or green bean cooking water, if you like) if the pan seems dry. When the vegetables are hot through, add a tablespoon or so of butter and some minced chives and toss until the butter has emulsified into the braising liquid and the chives are well distributed throughout the ragoût. If you have some herbed compound butter on hand, you could use that instead of the plain butter and chives. Pesto would also make a fine addition—add a spoonful along with a drizzle of olive oil instead of the butter and chives. Taste and correct the seasoning and serve.

1 comment:

Katrina said...

I agree with Chris. Made that corn/zucchini (have left the beans out both times) for Kevin last night (the boys just had corn on the cob). He LOVED it. I mean, he kept eating it and exclaiming how good it was. He's hard to get too much out of sometimes. I didn't even have fresh basil this time. I thought it was a little too far to drive to my mom's house to get some. ;)
Kevin doesn't like eating corn ON the cob, so I think he just really liked all the flavors of this, rather than just borning corn cut off the cob.
Now, I want some ragout!