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Chef John Foster: Rain, rain, rain — puts a wet twist to farm-to-table eating, but we have to adjust

The rains have been coming fast and furious for days now, somewhat against what most August weather is like in Kentucky. Usually, around this time of year, the sprinklers are going non-stop and the farmers are struggling to maintain their thirsty fields through extensive irrigation.

Not so this year as most of what I hear is an exasperated plea for some dry weather to harvest in, or at the very least a lessening of the intensity of the downpour.

It’s raining with some vengeance these days, an almost visceral attack with large droplets and a savage intensity that suggests that Mother is not happy. Or maybe it’s her way of reminding us that she brought those fields into fruition and she can take them out.

It does cause some real issues with the harvest of food and the longevity of the plants in the fields. Sitting in water, vines partially submerged for days, some squashes, pumpkins and even tomatoes will develop some serious rot causing the vines to die and the squash to wither up.

Picking while it’s wet creates the same issues, opening the door for infections that will also wither the vines. Standing water on potatoes and carrots will erode the soil and wash out the vegetables exposing them to all sorts of pests. I could go on and on, and it would sound like sour grapes to some, (also a potential issue) but it becomes a very real issue that directly affects what we can purchase at the markets.

There is no remedy for this, except perhaps the experience of the farmer to adjust their practices. At the same time, we as consumers, customer, and chef, must adjust our expectations.

Just as we are disappointed that there is a season to all things we must also recognize that our local food economy is directly tied to our local eco-system and weather patterns. Change any one of these, divert any reliable source of water, wind, sun or rain and things change, sometimes for the worse. When we consider the amount of land currently under cultivation, we need to not only cite the acreage but also the quality, the location, and the farmer’s accessibility to markets.

If you want local, farm to table eating, you can’t crowd your growers into an ever-shrinking box on the far side of the county. We also must be aware that planting schedules happen at multiple times during the year. Industrious growers understand that they can extend their markets if they extend their seasons. Tomatoes that run from March through December, greens that pop up two to three time a year for longer periods of time, all of these changes make for a more vibrant market. They also increase expectation, especially from those of us that market our businesses to dovetail with increased and extended production.

A word of warning here, this way can be just as deflating as an August gullywasher in my squash patch. Fewer days of sun in February means small batches of tomatoes in March. A freeze and thaw in March mean absolutely no peaches in July and August. And once again we are back at the leveling effects of nature and its elements.

Frustrating yes, but well worth the effort of all parties. The rains will come and go, just like the seasonality of each vegetable.

Embrace the moments when you appreciate what’s in front of you, even if you counted on that squash for another month. Wait a week and you may be pleasantly surprised that the rains didn’t hit that part of the state as hard and someone else stepped in a and filled your order.

Know this though, the seasons will change, and every good cook should change with them. Use the last of that summer squash or the first of the butternut squash, freeze some, can some, dry some herbs, and then move on. There is plenty more to explore before the rains, or the snow hits again.

End of the summer ratatouille
I know these elements are all out there now because I’ve been dying to make this. The movie and the subsequent flood of “special ratatouille” recipes have ruined this dish for most people, but I think it is the perfect late summer dish to serve as the warm lazy days yield to the cooler nights. When once I might have just jumbled this all together, I do like the layered look, borrowing heavily from the titans of Provencal cuisine.

Good olive oil
Plenty of garlic cloves
Shallots or sweet cipollini onions
Summer squash
Roma tomatoes
Fresh thyme
Fresh basil
Fresh lavender
Fresh oregano
A touch of rosemary or savory.

A heavy bottomed, deep casserole dish, with lots of years on it.

The number of ingredients you will use determine the size of the casserole dish and the make-up of the ratatouille. Depending on the size of the dish, count on building the height of the casserole to at least two inches and then losing up to a half inch when cooking.

Slice the Roma tomatoes into thin wedges, season with salt and pepper, and dress with olive oil. Roast at 500 for 10 minutes to start the cooking process and create some juices. Reserve all to the side. Spread the sides and the bottom of your dish with olive oil, just to coat. With your knife, take two garlic cloves and turn them into a paste. Spread the paste liberally around the bottom and sides of the pan. Thinly slice your shallots or onions into long strips, being careful to remove the root end. Do the same with several cloves of garlic.

Slice your eggplant, squash, and zucchini in long, thin strips, and only peel them if the skin is tough or discolored. Take the leaves from your herbs, and chop roughly or leave whole if preferred. Mix together and set aside. Now it’s simply a matter of layering vegetables, herbs, garlic, shallots and olive oil. Make sure you season with salt and pepper and use olive oil between each layer. You can run each layer in the same direction or criss-cross each layer. You can also fix vegetables on each layer or have single layers of squash, zucchini and eggplant.

The end result should produce a heavy full casserole that is then topped with the half-roasted tomatoes, more herbs, garlic and shallots, and any reserved juices. Cover the casserole with parchment and then a lid if you have one. Bake at 300 until the dish has settled and then remove the lid and turn the heat to 400 until the tomatoes show more color. Serve warm or room temperature, by itself or on a good baguette.

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John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here.

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