It's not quite summer yet, but I've been hankering for a dish I like to break out when it's almost too hot to cook - along the same lines as Salade Niçoise and Ratatouille, it's an Italian dish that is so satisfying. This works best after a particularly fruitful (or veg-ful) trip to the farmer’s market, or even better if you have a bountiful harvest from your own garden! What I mean is, this is a very simple dish that highlights the glory of summer produce at its peak, so use the freshest veggies you can find – even the carrots and garlic! The ingredient list is long and varied, and you can skip certain veggies and get the main idea.
You can either use about 7 or eight nice big garden tomatoes, or two cans of crushed RedGold tomatoes. (Or a combination – I do one can and about 3 big Heirlooms.)
For Garden-fresh tomatoes: Boil a pot of water. Plunge each tomato into the water about 3 minutes, until you see the skin start to crack. Remove from water, the skins will now easily peel right off. When cooled, peel, seed, and chop tomatoes, then put them in a sieve over a bowl and salt them lightly. Let them drain while you prep the other veggies, about a half hour. Save the tomato water! – you might end up throwing it in if the stew looks too dry.
Peel and cube one medium-sized eggplant and put in a bowl with salted water to soak. (This is optional - some people claim it gets rid of a "bitterness" that I've personally never had a problem with.)
Take two big handfuls of fresh green beans. Snap off each end and then snap each green bean in half. Remove the strings from each bean if they are tough.
Scrub (no peeling necessary) and cut six or eight very small or 4-5 medium new potatoes into little chunks.
Rinse and cut one or two zucchini – I use green, but you can use a combination of yellow squash and zukes if you want.
Fry up 4-6 Mild (sweet) Italian Sausages (I use Johnsonville mostly) until just brown on the outside. Pull them out of the pan, slice into ½” thick coins, and return to the pan to brown evenly.
Meanwhile, put a nice big swirl of good olive oil in the bottom of a large, heavy stockpot that’s turned to medium-high. Have a mixture of finely chopped celery, carrot, onion, and garlic getting soft and browned for several minutes. I use about 2 big cloves of garlic, two ribs of celery, and an equal amount of carrot and onion. Add a couple grinds of salt and a big pinch of red pepper flakes. There will be a yummy brown fond on the bottom of the pan – don’t stir too much.
*the next steps should be done with a slow rythmn. Listening to music is helpful in getting the timing right. Pour a glass of wine if it helps you slow down.
Add potatoes and let them cook a few minutes.
Add drained eggplant and zucchini/squash. Season with a little salt. Stir and wait another couple minutes – the stew should start getting wet. If the sausages are done, go ahead and add them. Throw in the green beans. Add about two glugs of a nice dry red wine, such as Marsala or Sangiovese. Go ahead and put in the tomatoes. Stir it all up (now scrape the bottom and get that fond mixed up in there) and put the lid on. Throw in a few leaves of hand-torn basil and turn down the heat to medium low. Let everything simmer for awhile.
You know it’s done when the zucchini is just transparent but not mushy, but the potatoes are quite tender. Make sure the beans are also cooked through but not mush. This takes about 20-30 minutes with the lid on. If it looks too dry, add the tomato water. If it’s too wet, leave the lid off and let it reduce a bit. Taste and see if it needs seasoning (salt or red pepper flakes.) If you used canned tomatoes, it could be pretty acidic, in which case, throw in a pinch of sugar.
Finish with chiffonade of basil, a swirl of good olive oil, and freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Serve with crusty bread and red wine and pretend you're sitting on a balcony in the Gulf of Naples with a view of misty purple Mt. Vesuvius in the distance across the sea... This is a good dish to eat outside on the porch – it’s summer in a bowl!