The veggie-lovers' holiday

As I stroll through produce markets, I can't help but reflect that it's not by chance that Succot, the holiday celebrating produce, falls at this time of year.

By FAYE LEVY
October 4, 2006 10:20
veggie dish 88

veggie dish 88. (photo credit: )

 
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Succot is the nutritionist's dream holiday. For Succot, unlike other festivals, health conscious cooks don't have the challenge of designing menus that are wholesome while embracing traditional foods such as matza, fried foods, hamantaschen or cheesecake, which aren't exactly health food. Succot's theme of appreciating the bounty and beauty of nature is a wonderful ancient lesson in menu planning. These days food scientists come up with study after study touting the benefits of including a high proportion of plant-based foods in the diet. Even before you sit down to eat, the succa itself, as well as the prayer ritual with the etrog, makes this message of the blessings of nature loud and clear. As I stroll through produce markets, I can't help but reflect that it's not by chance that Succot, the holiday celebrating produce, falls at this time of year. Produce stands display a dizzying array of natural treats. Indeed, this is the season when it's hardest to avoid overbuying. My kitchen counter is covered with pears, plums, nectarines, fresh yellow dates, pomegranates, quinces, new-crop apples, tomatoes and orange squashes. My mother used to laugh that my counter looks like that of a farmhouse kitchen. But I insisted that I love looking at the beautiful produce and besides, plums, pears, peaches and tomatoes ripen better at room temperature. With all this produce around, it makes perfect sense to use it as the natural decoration of the succa. Indeed, a succa adorned with garlands of produce fits in with the traditional scene of the Mideast. When I was in Gaziantep, Turkey, at this time of year, people strung up peppers and eggplants to dry on their roofs; standing on the roof, with rows of vegetables hanging overhead, felt like being in a succa. I get a similar "succa" feeling when I walk beneath grape arbors. "Hang strands of yellow Barhi dates in a dry and airy spot - in the kitchen, porch or in the succa" was the advice I received from Doug Adair of Pato's Dream Date Gardens, a company in Thermal, California that takes prides in growing dates as they were grown in the times of the Bible. PLANNING MEALS around produce is a good practice at any time but it especially makes sense during Succot to celebrate the holiday's harvest theme. Since each vegetable and fruit has its own cocktail of vitamins and other beneficial elements, we are advised to eat as wide a variety as we can. Thus preparing a dish of several vegetables makes for sound nutrition, as well as good taste and an interesting meal. Casseroles and stews are at the top of the list of Succot favorites because they are so portable. One of my favorite choices is French ratatouille, which combines eggplant, tomatoes, peppers and onions and is flavored with herbs and garlic. Around the Mediterranean stews like this abound, some of which, like Balkan guvetch, might include other vegetables like green beans or okra. These dishes are convenient because they benefit from long slow simmering, and you don't need to worry about overcooking them. Some cooks simply combine all the vegetables and cook them at length on the stovetop or in the oven; others saute some or all of the vegetables separately, then stew them briefly together. Whichever method you use, fine quality extra virgin olive oil and careful seasoning are keys to making these casseroles delicious. Such a Mediterranean casserole makes a versatile vegetarian entree or a partner for meat. And if you consider it a basic preparation, there's no end to the other dishes you can make from it. To boost the protein of ratatouille as a meatless main course, I add chickpeas or even a Chinese ingredient - tofu. You can turn ratatouille into a meat dish by sauteing ground beef and cooking it with the vegetables. For an easy supper dish, bake or poach eggs in the ratatouille, or, for dairy meals, sprinkle it with grated Parmesan or cubes of feta cheese. To make ratatouille into a meal-in-one-dish that's easy to serve in the succa, I heat the stew with pasta or rice, instead of serving these in separate dishes. My husband's Moroccan relative Dvorah Cohen, who lives in Paris, cooks ratatouille with chicken pieces and steams it between layers of rice. Dvorah came up with this idea after a friend gave her a recipe for Persian rice with chicken, and improvised her Mediterranean version by adding ratatouille. Gil Marks, author of Olive Trees and Honey, notes that guvetch is a favorite for Succot, as it is "easy to shuttle outside to the succa." Normally it's served with mamaliga (Romanian cornmeal mush) but like ratatouille, it can be cooked with rice. At dairy meals, he writes, it is accompanied with yogurt, which I like to serve with ratatouille too. RATATOUILLE - RICE For this quick version of the classic dish, I use diced vegetables, then heat them with rice, which becomes permeated with the ratatouille's rich taste. You might like to follow the custom of Provencal cooks and prepare a generous quantity of ratatouille; serve it the following day, either hot with eggs or fish, or cold as a refreshing side dish. 7 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 450 to 700 gr. ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped, or an 800-gr. can tomatoes, drained, chopped Salt and freshly ground pepper 1 small eggplant (350 gr.), peeled, diced small 1 medium onion, chopped 1 small green bell pepper. diced 1 small red bell pepper, diced 225 gr. zucchini or summer squash (keeshou), cut in small pieces 4 large garlic cloves, minced 1 tablespoon fresh thyme, or 1 teaspoon dried 11⁄2 cups long-grain rice 3 to 4 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh basil leaves, plus a few sprigs for garnish Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a heavy saucepan. Add tomatoes, salt and pepper and cook over medium-high heat, stirring often for 10 minutes. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large saute pan. Add eggplant, salt and pepper and saute over medium-high heat for 3 minutes or until most pieces are moistened. Transfer to a bowl. Add 2 tablespoons of oil to pan and heat over medium heat. Add onion and peppers and cook for 8 minutes or until onion is tender but not brown. Add zucchini and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Return eggplant to pan. Add tomatoes, garlic and thyme and heat until sizzling. Cover and simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes or until vegetables are tender and mixture is thick. If necessary, cook uncovered over medium-high heat for 2 or 3 minutes to evaporate excess liquid. Taste and adjust seasoning. Boil rice uncovered in a large saucepan of 2 quarts boiling salted water over high heat for 12 minutes or until just tender but still slightly firm. Drain, rinse with cold water, and drain well once more. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large, heavy saucepan. Add rice and heat through over medium heat, stirring with a fork. Add hot ratatouille and heat, tossing gently, for 2 minutes. Gently stir in chopped basil. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve garnished with basil sprigs. Makes 4 to 6 servings. Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.

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