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Herbes de Provence and Ratatouille





I know that Herbes de Provence are not a new blend for many of our long time members, but we have so many new members that it seemed like a wonderful thing to present at this time of the year. After all, sunshine , or the mere suggestion of sunshine in Midwinter is possibly one of the best tonics of all.

My first introduction to the classic French blend of Herbes de Provence was in the early seventies, when my long haired and lovely hippie sister came home from Chatham College having learned to make a very sophisticated country French vegetable dish, known as #Ratatouille. I remember that  day so well, she was standing over my mother’s stove and she looked like a kitchen goddess, surrounded by piles of beautifully diced vegetables, an exotic looking bottle of extra virgin olive oil, a wooden spoon, sea salt and pepper grinders and a ceramic jar that contained the most magical combination of herbs that I’d ever smelled to that point. I remember her recipe perfectly and it’s still a good one, actually the best one I've ever made. Most make ratatouille by throwing all of the vegetables in a pot and cooking them all together slowly, but my sisters ratatouille was different, because she added the vegetables one at a time. 


This way she produced a layering of flavor that cannot be accomplished by just impertinently throwing everything together and letting the whole thing quickly cook. It was one of those classic moments between sisters, where I just watched, listened and absorbed what she was teaching me. It took hours which I measured in in tastes and laughter. It was the perfect way to pass on such a recipe. I love to make this in the wintertime, because it turns my kitchen into the sunniest place in the house. The fragrance is remarkable and the flavor sublime. Layered into a tart shell and topped with fresh parmesan and mozzarella and a turn under the broiler you have a perfect supper when paired with a salad and a crusty loaf of bread. A few tablespoons of this on top of a grilled chicken breast or a piece of fresh tuna will transport you instantly to the South of France.

   

In a moment I’ll walk you through the recipe. I still love it and it’s one of those perfect dishes for a day when you’ve got a little extra time and a lot of lovely white Bordeaux. This is a two glass dish…one to sip while you’re cooking and one to sip while you’re eating. Making a perfect Ratatouille is a lovely way to spend an afternoon! The secret is the slow cooking over the low flame and of course the herbs, Herbes de Provence to be more precise or as I love to refer to them as “the magic of the South of France in a bottle”. 

It’s so much fun to make your own Herbes de Provence but fortunately you can buy it at many different places and still even find it in that fancy little French ceramic pot with the wooden spoon attached. Truthfully though? Why buy it when it’s so easy to make!


As we know it, the classic #HerbesdeProvence blend is a mixture of dried Savory, Fennel, Basil, Thyme, Chervil, Marjoram, and Lavender flowers with a bit of dill although I am told that there are many different variations depending upon whose Grandmere  has given you the recipe! I love to dry my chive blossoms and ad these to the blend, that’s my personal touch. I always have these herbs growing fresh in my gardens  so I play with the combinations, sometimes adding a little more dill or a bit of fresh rosemary, according to what I am cooking. Usually, I start with a ¼ teaspoonful of each and then add a little more of whatever I think is needed.  Traditionally I love to use this blend to flavor grilled fish or lamb but I find that it’s at its most delicious when blended into butter with a bit of garlic to be tucked under the skin of a roasting chicken. Herbes de Provence are an integral part of my beef stew recipe and a perfect blend of seasonings to be whisked into a bit of homemade mayonnaise for a tuna, salmon, shrimp or chicken salad. 

I also love to scent my soup stocks with a bouquet garni of these fresh herbs. Just take the long stalks and tie them together with some kitchen string. Place them into the pot and remove them when you strain the stock. This is a fabulous way to infuse the fragrance and flavor into the soup without having all of those messy bits floating around. You can also infuse these herbs in olive oil to use to create wonderfully scented dressings or drizzles.


A little aside here is that if you use sweet almond oil and increase the lavender and add a few drops of lavender essential oil it makes a massage oil one that's really relaxing, divine for your skin and wonderful for tonifying the lymphatic system!






But back to my sister’s magical recipe. 

A great Ratatouille takes time to make and lots of it! You must begin with a good cast iron pot, a wooden spoon (and a frilly apron!).  You’ll need lots of cubed eggplant, tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, green, red and yellow peppers and green and yellow zucchini, about 8 cups total. Make sure to have your first glass of chilled white wine handy and a lovely runny piece of brie and a toasted baguette…cliché maybe, perfect YES!

 

Liberally lace the pot with about 4 tablespoons of olive oil and bring up the heat. Add about 6 cloves of minced garlic and stir gently, allowing the garlic to softly infuse the oil but not burn. Add two cups of mixed bone broth or a vegan broth, your choice. Then add the onions, sip the wine and cook this gently for about 10 minutes. Then add the eggplant, the juice of one fresh lemon and a bit of sea salt. Allow the eggplant to cook until translucent (about 15 minutes) enjoy another sip and then add the tomatoes which you will have pressed quite a lot of the juice out of. Stir gently and allow the whole things to just blend for about 10 more minutes and then add the mushrooms, stir and continue sautéing for another 5 minutes while enjoying another sip  of wine and a bite of brie!


Add the peppers and follow the same instructions as before and then the zucchini goes in last. You can add more olive oil whenever you think that it’s needed and by now you’ve begun to create a lovely vegetable stew. At this point, add one cup of good white wine, a large knob of grass fed butter, 2 more cloves of minced garlic and some more salt and pepper to taste. Take another sip and dunk a bit of the baguette into the stew and enjoy. Cook the Ratatouille gently for about another 10 minutes, stirring continuously. Then add 3 tablespoons of your favorite Herbes de Provence blend and let the ratatouille slowly simmer gently for about 2 and a half hours or until the wine has evaporated and what’s left is just velvety and luscious. Add a little more butter if necessary and then take about 3 handfuls of fresh Genovese basil leaves and stir them in. Let the ratatouille just sit peacefully for a few moments. Enjoy another sip of your wine and take a piece of the baguette, spread it with the brie and about 2 tablespoons of the ratatouille. Breathe deeply, imagine that you're sitting in the warm French sunshine…Chew hungrily… swallow…  Do you need anything more?