Friends, we are gathered here today to celebrate a miraculous event. On Saturday March 20, of the year 2010 Adria Marie (last name omitted to protect the innocent), sister to the writer whose words you are reading at this very moment…COOKED.

Yes, you read that right – my sister, the Princess of the pre-packaged meal, the Duchess of Dinner’s Ready busted out those squeaky clean Pampered Chef mixing bowls and whipped up her very own main course entrée. From scratch! And it wasn’t just any dinner either. It was ratatouille potpie courtesy of our friends at The New York Times.

Oh, I am just so proud! You should have seen her! Chopping and roasting and baking AND simmering!

Good Lord in Heaven, she even removed sausages from their casings….WITH HER OWN BARE HANDS!

Miracles were happening in that kitchen, let me tell you.

But first, a little background: my sister used to live in an apartment where the oven went unheated, the pans remained in their protective plastic wrappings and the spices withered away to dust. For six, hungry years she ate nothing but Lean Cuisines.

Then she became blissfully wed to my super cool bro-in-law Chris and graduated from microwave dinners to Dinner’s Ready; those heat and eat meals for America’s 80-hour-a-week working crew. A definite improvement though they both still had a long way to go…

In her defense, she and Chris are a busy busy couple. However, I’m not about to let my future nieces and nephews eat all their dinners out of freezer bags. Therefore, I have set out to teach my clueless in the kitchen sister how to make some chow.

I chose ratatouille potpie for her first crash course in culinary mischief because it involves several, key cooking techniques: chopping, measuring, bread dough making, roasting, simmering, and baking.

For those of you who see the word “ratatouille” and immediately think of cute little Pixar rats who control physical movements by pulling hair…

Photo credit: "The Age"

Ratatouille is a French Provencal stew that originated in Nice and was prepared by farmers during the summer months with fresh, seasonal produce. It traditionally consists of tomatoes, eggplant, onion, zucchini and red peppers with herbs like thyme, basil or parsley thrown in for fun. Today, it is served as a side dish or with rice/pasta as a main dish.

People can get a little testy when asked about the “proper” way to prepare ratatouille. Our lady of the French kitchen, Julia Child, insists on roasting the eggplant and zucchini separately and then layering each with the sauce-like tomato/onion/red pepper mixture. Others just throw everything in a saucepan and call it good.

Those crazy kids at The New York Times, however, like to think outside the box. They prepare ratatouille by roasting the eggplant & zucchini, simmering the other veggies until stew-like, tossing in sausage for crazy meaty fun, throwing it together in a gratin dish and then topping everything off with cornbread biscuits.

They never cease to amaze do they?

I’ve heard it said that teaching is the best method for learning and gosh darn it those people are sure right. It’s amazing what you yourself can learn while taking the time to slow everything down and teach a method step-by-step.

Too often we speed through recipes and forget to savor the actual process of cooking. I’m a little jealous of my sister actually… that feeling of accomplishment you get upon first learning to cook is exhilarating.

And how did my sister fare?

Well by golly, the whole crazy plan worked! I swear on The Produce Bible I let Adria do everything herself. Aside from a few explanatory chops, she was on her own. No culinary water wings for you sister!

In short, she was splendid and the ratatouille tasted wonderful. The peanut-gallery (i.e. my brother-in-law) said her chopping skills have already improved immensely. Though my favorite comment of his had to be…

“So…when are you coming back?”

Have you taught anyone to cook before? Any teaching tips? Do share!

~Brittni

Ratatouille and Sausage Potpie with Cornmeal Biscuits
From The New York Times, September 2009

This is one of my all-time favorite dishes to prepare. I first made it last fall and fell in love with the simple medley of fresh vegetables, herbs and spiced, Italian sausage. It’s hearty, filling and absolutely delicious – perfect for a cozy Sunday night spent on the couch with a movie (preferably Pixar’s Ratatouille)! Make this during the summer/early fall when produce is at it’s peak. FYI: Chicken or turkey sausage can easily be substituted for the pork. I’ve tried it both ways and each tastes just as good. A time-saving tip: prepare your veggies in advance. This can be done earlier in the day if you have some spare chopping time on your hands. Just store the veggies in an airtight container so they don’t get soggy.

For the cornmeal biscuits, you will need:

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup fine cornmeal
2 tsp. sugar
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
6 tbsp. cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
3/4 cup sour cream or plain whole milk yogurt
Milk

For the ratatouille, you will need:

1 large eggplant (1 1/2 lbs.) cut into 1-inch chunks
3 small zucchini ( 3/4 lb.), cut into 1-inch chunks
7 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp. kosher salt
3/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
3/4 lb. Italian sausage, casings removed
1 large onion, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 red pepper, cored and cut into 1-inch chunks
3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 1/2 lbs. plum tomatoes
6 sprigs fresh thyme
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley or basil

Directions:

For the biscuits: Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Using a pastry cutter or fork (or your fingers! I find they work best…), cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Fold in the sour cream. Gently knead the mixture until it comes together in a ball, adding a drop or two of milk if necessary. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Chop all your veggies.

For the ratatouille: In a bowl, toss eggplant and zucchini with 5 tablespoons oil; season with 3/4 teaspoon salt and 3/4 teaspoon pepper. Spread vegetables in a single layer on one or two large baking sheets (do not crowd the vegetables). Transfer to the oven and roast, tossing occasionally, until golden, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a large, deep, preferably oven-proof sauté pan, heat 1 tablespoon oil. Crumble sausage into the pan and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 7 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer sausage to a paper towel-lined plate.

Return pan to medium heat and add remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Stir in the onion, pepper, garlic and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt. Cook until softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and thyme sprigs; simmer gently until tomatoes are cooked and mixture is stew-like, about 10 minutes.

Stir in the sausage, roasted vegetables and parsley. If you are not using an oven-safe pan, transfer mixture to a 2-quart gratin dish or baking pan.

Divide biscuit dough into six equal balls. Use your palm to flatten each ball into a 1/2 -inch-thick disk. Arrange on top of ratatouille mixture. Brush biscuits lightly with milk.

Transfer skillet or pan to oven and cook until biscuits are golden, 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool 10 minutes before serving.

Yield ~ 6 servings

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