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July 21, 2010. Now at Farmers Markets, in CSA farm shares and pretty much everywhere: eggplant, peppers, squash, fennel and tomatoes at their seasonal peak flavors.

Now in the air almost everywhere: way too much heat. The silver lining in the smog cloud? You can make a huge pot of ratatouille; refrigerate it; and enjoy it cold for the rest of the week.

It’s quick and easy to make: cut the vegetables into cubes; layer them into a big ovenproof bowl or pot with some olive oil and herbs; bake for an hour at 375 degrees. OK, every 20 minutes you slide it out of the oven and press it all down with a big spatula to help co-mingle all the flavors. That’s it.

Beyond eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, squash and thyme – the classic ratatouille ingredients – this week’s farm share has fresh fennel and red scallions. The fennel will be a great addition; I’ll use the scallions in place of the usual onion.

This vegetable “stew” can be your meal. You can serve it with rice or pasta – or between slices of good sourdough bread. Or you can do what I’m doing tonight: make some pizza bread. I’ll make a pizza crust – with just a little olive oil and sea salt sprinkled on top. OK, maybe a little finely grated reggiano parmigiano cheese on top, too.

Let’s be specific:
Coat the inside of your bowl with a little olive oil. Put in a layer of coarsely diced onions or scallions. Drizzle a little olive oil on top of it. Sprinkle some fresh herbs on, too. Thyme, basil, whatever. Next, a layer of cubed eggplant. Some more olive oil and fresh herbs. Then a layer of cubed peppers. More olive oil and herbs.

Now a layer of cubed fennel bulb. Oil. Herbs. And a layer of tomatoes and herbs. Finally, a layer of cubed summer squash. And olive oil and herbs. Now, do it all over again. And maybe again. Until the bowl or pot is full.

Optional for garlic lovers: finely chop a clove or two of garlic and sprinkle some between each of the layers along with the olive oil and herbs.

Put it in a preheated 350-degree oven. At the 20-minute mark, slide it out and press down on your vegetable layer cake with a big spatula. Do it again at the 40-minute mark. It should be ready in an hour: soft but not totally mushy. Put some fresh basil leaves on top if you have some. If you don’t, here’s yet another reason to be growing basil on your window sill or in your garden.

What to drink?
This is a south of France classic. Chill a bottle of rosé. Or make a fresh ginger ale.

Every Thing Is Everything
Wanna reduce your carbon footprint in the kitchen? Eat more vegetables, less meat. Producing a pound of beef at an industrial feedlot produces 100 times more greenhouse gas than growing vegetables. (“How Meat Contributes to Global Warming”, Scientific American, February, 2009)

Wanna reduce your risk of cancer? The American Institute for Cancer Research’s Diet and Cancer Report advises planning meals around non-starchy vegetables and fruits. The report recommends “5 servings or more of vegetables and fruit daily because, like physical activity, they pack a double whammy against cancer. Probable evidence indicates they help reduce cancer risk on their own, and as low-energy-dense foods, they help maintain a healthy weight, which the evidence shows has a big influence on cancer risk”.

And don’t forget the herb. Thyme contains 35 – count ’em, 35 – different anti-oxidants. Tomatoes? They have lots of a key anti-oxidant, lycopene. But lycopene is fat-soluble, so you need something like olive oil to make it bio-available – as Michael Pollan points out in his great In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. This one is required reading if you really care about what you’re eating.

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