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Delicious discoveries
A ratatouille shoot
14
May
2014
Amanda Hart
Smoked rosemary nuts, spinach salad with cranberry dressing, ratatouille with roasted vegetables and maple tiramisu for dessert: this festive meal was the grand finale of a cookbook project.

What started as a simple connection between friends—me cooking and Tara photographing—morphed into something beyond my wildest dreams. I’ve never attended culinary school, never written a food blog and never even worked in a restaurant, but, hey, why not publish a cookbook? I’ve been writing recipes since I was a kid and sharing them with everyone I know, so the idea of putting together a cookbook seemed like the only logical thing to do.

After crazily cooking up 50 of my recipes in 3 days, Tara and I realized the cookbook would be lacking one thing—people! For me, cooking is not just a creative outlet, it’s also about connecting and sharing with people (there’s a reason they say the quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach!). There was no doubt about what we had to do next: gather up all my close friends, cook up a grand meal, and toast to our liveliness, with Tara photographing every bit of it.

The party was held on an idyllic September evening, tucked away on a secluded countryside garden in Kansas. Surrounded by endless skies and lush greenery, it was the perfect setting to bring everyone together in the name of food. In between hugs and laughs, friends were welcomed with a table of small plates, including kale and white bean bruschetta, smoky rosemary nuts, avocado tempeh-bacon sliders, and goat cheese-pistachio stuffed dates. As the sun began to set, we all took our seats at the linen-covered picnic table for the first course: spinach salad with roasted pumpkin, cauliflower, pepitas and a cranberry-balsamic dressing.

You’d be pretty hard-pressed to find a cook who isn’t inspired by fresh, local produce these days, and I’m definitely no exception. When I’m struggling to come up with a new recipe, I’ll wander around the market in search of that inspiring aha moment. Sometimes all it takes is seeing a delectable plum or an impossibly short-lived patty pan squash for the ideas to start flowing. Kansas gardens in the beginning of September are still teeming with tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, squash and herbs, so I’m sure you can guess what that equation adds up to... ratatouille! Not the typical, mushy ratatouille though. The trick for flavourful, textural perfection is roasting the vegetables before simmering them in the tomato-wine reduction. For more depth, I added crispy lentil dumplings to the saucy ratatouille before serving it atop saffron-asparagus Orzo. The meal was indulgent and satisfying without being overly heavy. 

The grand finale to our Kansas extravaganza was maple tiramisu. Made with a trifecta of coffee, booze, and chocolate —there’s clearly a reason tiramisu means “pick me up” in Italian! I served them up in perfectly portable mason jars, making them easy to store and serve. Tiramisu only gets better as the flavours marinate over time, and, trust me, the more you can have completed before the day of the party, the better. 

As a near lifelong vegetarian, I’m very conscientious of dietary restrictions and how exclusionary they can be. I’m not entirely vegan or gluten-free myself, but I always try to provide options for those who are. My cooking style has always been diverse and exploratory, using flavourful fresh produce and exotic spices from around the globe (hence the name of my cookbook, Roaming Fork). I also find it thrilling to make a delicious dish even better with healthier swaps —like using maple syrup in place of sugar or pureed vegetables in place of cream and butter. Really though, I get the biggest kick out of persuading people to try something new. I’ve converted many tofu haters! Kansas is particularly meat-centric, so I’ve encountered a lot of skepticism over the years, until I get them to take that first hesitant bite.

Scenes from around the table. Lots of laughs were served up with the Pumpkin Spinach Salad, Roasted Ratatouille and Maple Tiramisu. We savoured every morsel as evening turned to a dark, starry nightscape.

Amanda Hart

Photographer, Author

www.roaminghart.com

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