Meatless Monday: Natural Disaster, Natural Comfort Food

Long before it was a Disney flick, ratatouille was -- and is -- a deeply soothing summery stew of eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, onions and peppers.
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With the double whammy of an earthquake and Hurricane Irene bearing down, last week was a white-knuckler out here on the East Coast and we've all been in need of comfort.

Here in Miami, we know even a glancing blow from a hurricane can knock over trees and knock out electricity. And a potential Category 4 storm? Been there -- Hurricane Andrew, August 24, 1992. Don't need to do it again.

As Irene closed in on the East Coast, I remembered back to those hot, torpid weeks without power and comfort. I went through the usual hurricane prep with grim determination, laying in bottled water, batteries, candles, canned goods. But I also made ratatouille.

Long before it was a Disney flick, ratatouille was -- and is -- a deeply soothing summery stew of eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, onions and peppers. It's a gift from Provence that's morphed all over the Mediterranean, including Catalan escalavida and Greek briam. They're all regional variations on one of gastronomy's great meatless mains.

But when 90-mile an hour winds have ripped your roof off, you don't really care about that. What you want is:
1) a new home
2) a new life
But before you can even reckon with any of that, you want -- and need -- comfort.

Ratatouille gives you that, too. It's what summer tastes like. There's a reason the snooty restaurant critic in Ratatouille recaptures his childhood and innocence with a single bite. Another of the dish's great pleasures is procuring the ingredients. It calmed my nerves between deadlines and staring at hurricane updates, trying to will Irene's path to shift. Stop by your farmer's market for a haul of the season's greatest hits -- firm eggplant, skin as glossy as patent leather, verdant, vibrant zucchini, sweet, shapely pepper, tomatoes ripe to the verge of collapse, fresh, pungent onion and garlic. I like to include mushrooms in my ratatouille. Be they white and button and innocent or a darker, wilder, sexier variety, they add an earthy element, a low note that chimes together with the other vegetables for a symphony of flavors.

With or without shroomage, ratatouille is a genius dish that makes the most of produce that, let us say, shows its age without refrigeration. This is important when everything starts to rot, as it does without electricity. Ratatouille is a treat hot, cold or at room temperature, a decided plus when electricity is iffy and you can't count on your oven or fridge.

Slow-cooked, ratatouille can be stewy, silky and decadently oily, with the vegetables diced small and all but vanishing into a happy sort of sludge. Or you can do it my way, so the ratatouille is gutsier, more about texture, with chunkier vegetables taking center stage. The whole thing is delicious and doable in under half an hour -- a blessing when you've got a major storm on your ass and no time to waste.

And unlike the comfort food of Iowa -- fried butter -- ratatouille is low in fat, has no cholesterol, is fewish in calories and provokes neither guilt nor weight gain. You may not care about that in the wake of disaster, natural or otherwise, but you're going to need all the support and soothing you can get as you recover. And you will.

Hurricane Irene stayed offshore here as she shot along the East Coast, so the worst South Florida got was a messy day of gusts and thunderstorms. By that time, I was frantic about everyone along the Outer Banks, New York and beyond.

I had dinner by candelight not because I had to, but because I wanted to. I gave thanks for the everyday miracle of a meal that came from the earth, one that sustained and comforted me. And if I could have made a pot big enough for everyone else all along the East Coast, I would have.

I'm broken-hearted for those of you who felt Hurricane Irene's wrath. Remember -- nature can destroy, but it can also provide great comfort. I wish you whatever comforts you best.


You do not need the threat of a disaster to enjoy ratatouille. Reap the pleasure of summer's harvest, don't let time and earth's seasonal abundance blow by. Ratatouille tastes good the day you make it, tastes even better tomorrow.

1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium eggplant, chopped
1 sweet pepper -- red, yellow or orange, chopped
1 large zucchini (or two small), chopped
8 ounces mushrooms, sliced
2 tomatoes, chopped (or 1 15-ounce can chopped tomatoes)
1/2 cup red wine
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 dash red pepper flakes
sea salt to taste

In a large pot, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add chopped garlic, giving it a stir. Add chopped onion and cook till they soften and release their fragrance, about 5 minutes. In order, add chopped eggplant, pepper, zucchini and mushrooms. Stir to combine.

Stir in chopped tomatoes, wine, cumin, pepper flakes and fennel seeds. Reduce heat to medium and cover, letting the mixture simmer for 20 minutes.

Stir again and season with sea salt to taste.

Serves 4, doubles like a dream, keeps covered and refrigerated for several days.

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