SCRATCH SUPPER: SOUTHERN RATATOOEY
One of the great things about having a blog is that sooner or later you can work in a topic that has been gnawing at you for years but has never found a home. Southern ratatooey is an excellent example of what I mean. I have wanted to write about it ever since the masterful Laura Shapiro asked (and answered) the question “Why Does America Hate Ratatouille?” for Gourmet back in 2008. I scrawled a few thoughts in a notebook and then got busy with something else. You know how it goes.
Because last night’s supper was so good, though, I have to tell about it. My husband and I call it southern ratatooey, but there is no eggplant involved. What it is, really, is nothing more than okra and tomatoes, cooked until tender and sludgy, then shoveled over hot buttered rice. This is nothing new to many southerners, but every time I serve it to the uninitiated—even those who are wary of okra—it is a big hit.
I generally start things off with a few slices of onion, but almost never add garlic, unless it is very young and fresh. I’ll incorporate summer squash or zucchini if it’s in the vegetable crisper, but I don’t go overboard. In fact, it is a mistake to get too lavish or complicated or to throw too many vegetables into the mix. It’s not a chopped salad, or an excuse to clean out the fridge. You want embellishment, not interference, with the lusciousness of the tomatoes and the sweet mellowness of the okra. (That said, in a few weeks, when the tomatoes are sharper and more acidic and the okra is hanging on for dear life, I’ll add some chopped fresh or crystallized ginger or a dab of anchovy paste.) And the overall textural effect should be juicy and soft, although a little crisp bacon crumbled over the top, for contrast, never hurts.
The rice here isn’t an afterthought, by the way, but part of the whole deal. Use your favorite long-grain rice and cook it with care. I just finished up a sack of Carolina Gold from Anson Mills and need to order more.
If you plan to serve this with crumbled bacon, go for broke and use some of the drippings as your cooking fat, in place of the olive oil. If there are any dribs and drabs of the ratatooey left over, they are delicious the next day for lunch, at room temperature and smooshed onto bruschetta.
Extra-virgin olive oil
Half a yellow onion or so, cut into thin slices
A pinch of red-pepper flakes
A few handfuls of young okra (a pound ought to do it), no more than 2 inches in length, rinsed
Summer squash and/or zucchini, thinly sliced, if desired
A few ripe, flavorful tomatoes, any kind, cut into wedges or chunks, along with any juices from the cutting board
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
Cooked long-grain rice
Crumbled crisp-cooked bacon, for serving (see above note)
1. Heat a glug of oil in a heavy skillet (preferably cast iron) over moderate heat and get the onion and red-pepper flakes working. Meanwhile, trim the larger okra pods and thinly slice. If the okra pods are very small, with fresh, tender caps, leave them whole (if you are at all phobic about the viscosity of okra this pretty much solves the problem).
2. Once the onion is softened, add the squash and/or zucchini if using, and cook until everything just begins to color. Add the okra and cook, stirring, until it begins to yield. Add the tomatoes and once they begin to release their juices, increase the heat to moderately high. Season with salt and pepper and simmer everything until very tender and the juices are thickened.
3. Taste the ratatooey and season if necessary. Give it a chance to collect itself while you butter the rice and spoon it into shallow soup plates. Top it a generous amount of ratatooey and bacon, if using, and eat immediately.