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Labor Day Ponderings

Labor Day approaches predictably every year, on the first Monday in September. When it was declared a federal holiday in Connecticut in 1894, thirty states were already celebrating, many with street parades and festivals for workers and their families. The idea resonated for the American people then and it continues to resonate now.

While the picnic traditions and celebratory gatherings were with Americans from the beginning, backyard BBQ’s and the social ban on wearing white after Labor Day weekend evolved later. Of greater importance, is taking a moment to pause and reflect on the truer meaning of Labor Day. Personally, I’ll take the opportunity to reflect on the power of advocates of fair trade, conditions and wages. I’ll choose to pause and give thanks to workers who labor in all sorts of ways. Not so different from the impetus for the holiday in the first place!

Now that my farmers’ market is year round, I am committed locavore; shopping for all organic, all local, GMO-free goods each Thursday. I know my farmers and trust them. I’ve seen them unload their trucks and pile their imperfect, still soil clumped, mysterious greens and knobby root veggies high on tables, neatly arranged to appeal to Connecticut shoppers. Dirt under their nails, stained tee shirts, practical, closed toe foot gear delineate the farmers from the shoppers.

I recently helped one of my favorite vendors, Cassandra, consolidate her un-sold containers of salads and grains at the close of market day. Together, we disassembled her booth anticipating relief from the scorching sun. After we loaded up, I led the way to my air conditioned home where I interviewed her as we cooled off with freshly brewed mint tea. I was prompted to think more closely about how she labors to make a living. Although I meet her each week at the market, and banter our friendly chat, our lengthy conversation led me to know more about her lifestyle and history. She eats within our foodshed and sources her ingredients from farmer friends who grow organically. She performs miracles with sweet tender kale in the spring and juicy tomatoes in August. She inspires me to eat local, buy local, and support those who run businesses with a higher sense of purpose and morality.

I’ll reject the signal that Labor Day is the end of summer. We have been conditioned to associate this last weekend in August as the beginning of the academic year, the end of summer’s more carefree rhythm, the date by which time we should stop wearing white (yup, that was a real thing).

I suggest we do the opposite and dig into summer’s pleasures more deeply. The Long Island Sound remains warm and swimmable into October. Our farmers’ markets and farm stands are brimming with mounds of the season’s tastiest, thin-skinned eggplants and crimson and plum hued tomatoes of all shapes and sizes. Piles of fuzzy sun kissed peaches, impossibly bright green, early apples and pears beckon us with their sweet aromas and turn our thoughts to baking. The summer light is mellowing, but the pleasures of summer are still with us deep into September, even October, if we are lucky.

Labor Day is the perfect moment to give thanks to those who labor to bring you something you value. If you think it’s corny, imagine your life without it.

Ratatouille Hash
Courtesy of Geila Hocherman

serves 10 to 12

I was in a restaurant in beautiful St. Maarten when a waiter presented the table with ratatouille served in timbales. It was delicious—and set me to thinking about adapting the usual ratatouille, a vegetable stew, to make it less stew-y. Here’s the result, a vibrant, fragrant hash—every vegetable retains its distinctive texture as well as flavor—that makes a perfect meal served with chicken, fish or meat. You can serve it hot or at room temperature.

Convert It
To make this a dairy main course, add a 10-ounce can of drained and rinsed chick peas and crumbled feta. Or, for or a quick, moussaka like dish, toss the hash with ground, sautéed lamb. Geila’s Tips
Check the bottom of the eggplants you buy. If the pip there is round, the plant is female; if long, male. Male eggplants have fewer seeds.

3 pounds (about 2 medium) eggplant, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
4 tablespoons kosher salt, plus more
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 tablespoons grapeseed or canola oil
2 large onions, sliced thin
2 tablespoons tomato paste
4 garlic cloves, put through a garlic press
2 roasted red bell peppers (see Step 3, page 48), cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
One 12-ounce can plum tomatoes with their juice
3 tablespoons chopped basil

1) Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Cover 2 medium cookie sheets with foil.
2) Place the eggplant in a colander in the sink and toss with 2 tablespoons salt. Top with a plate and a weight, such as a large can or wine bottle. Let the eggplant drain for 30 minutes, rinse and dry it, and transfer to cookie sheet. Drizzle over 3 tablespoons olive oil.
3) Place the zucchini on the second cookie sheet, toss with 2 tablespoons salt and 3 tablespoons olive oil. Bake the zucchini and the eggplant until cooked through, about 20 minutes, stirring both after 10 minutes to prevent sticking. Set both aside.
4) In a large skillet, heat the grapeseed oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions, sprinkle with salt and sauté, stirring, until translucent, 8 to 10 minutes. Push the onions to the side of the pan, add the tomato paste to the center, and cook until the paste begins to bubble, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté the mixture until the garlic is fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the bell peppers, stir, and add the vinegar, sugar, red pepper flakes, if using, and tomatoes with half their juice, and simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 4 minutes.
Add the eggplant, zucchini and basil, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer, stirring often, until the flavors have blended, about 10 minutes. If the mixture seems too dry, add more of the tomato juice and simmer 4 to 5 minutes more. Adjust the seasoning, if necessary, transfer to plates, and serve.

  • Liz Rueven blogs about her culinary adventures as she navigates around a non-kosher landscape. She features accommodating, memorable and mostly farm to table restaurants, inspiring events and recipes on her blog, Kosher Like Me. Find her at www.kosherlikeme.com.*

Labor Day Ponderings

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