What an embarrassment of riches a late-season farmstand offers—an alluring array of gorgeous vegetables begging to be purchased, taken home, and cooked. So, you buy a bagful or more. You sauté or steam some to make a few simple side dishes, you make a soup or two, and maybe you even roast several of them together. But a question I'm often asked is how to combine vegetables into something bigger—something that has more stature than a simple side dish, more heft than a minestrone, and more substance than a stir-fry—and with all the vegetables properly cooked. You'll find one answer in main-dish vegetable stews, or ragoûts.
Keep a plan in mind
Ragoût (pronounced ra-GOO) is how the French say "stew," but in my experience with these vegetable dishes, as soon as you say the word stew, your friends look at you quizzically and ask, "But where's the meat?" Also, a stew suggests long hours of cooking, and the recipes here are done in an hour or less. So, I like ragoût, which to me simply implies several elements united through gentle cooking.
While ragoûts are an improvisational type of dish, you can't exactly use a kitchen-sink approach when it comes to composing them, either. Here are some pointers to consider when you find yourself wondering what to include in a vegetable ragoût.
Limit yourself to about five vegetables, and definitely no more than seven. If there are too many elements, the dish will get muddled. Aim for a balance of flavors, textures, shapes, sizes, and colors, and cut the vegetables into reasonably sized, recognizable pieces, about one to two inches. When cut too large, they'll take longer to cook, and when cut too small, they become indistinct.
Choose vegetables that are in season at the same time. This is one guideline that never fails when it comes to thinking up ragoût combinations. In summer and early fall, try shell beans, green beans, zucchini or pattypan squash, and tomatoes, as in the Farmhouse Ragoût. In fall and early winter, try artichokes, potatoes, shallots, and fennel, as in the Artichoke Ragoût with Shallots & Fennel; this one is good in the spring, too, when the first crop of artichokes comes in (at that time, you might use spring leeks in place of fall shallots and chervil instead of rosemary). Spring is also a great time to make a ragoût of peas, asparagus, carrots, and spinach. Use your local farmers' market as a source of inspiration from season to season. As always, reach for the freshest vegetables you can find.
When using potatoes, opt for low-starch varieties. If the potatoes are organic, keep the skins on to provide additional color and nutritional value. Low-starch potatoes will hold their shape in the stew better than higher starch varieties like russets. Look for small potatoes like Red Bliss, creamers, or fingerlings, which, depending on their size, need only be halved or quartered (or even left whole if they're about the size of a large marble).
Other starchy ingredients like cooked chickpeas or big, fat dried heirloom beans such as gigantes or runner beans make great additions to a ragoût, too. I've found, though, that the best way to ensure that they maintain their shape and don't get mushy is to cook them separately and add them near the end of cooking, allowing enough time for them to meld with the other elements. The broth from the cooked beans can be added to the ragoût in case it needs a bit more liquid.
Very few vegetables are wrong for a ragoût, but there are a couple that I don't think work so well. Stay away from red beets because they turn everything in the pot red. (Golden beets, on the other hand, are fine.) Sweet potatoes are so starchy that they tend to get mealy in a ragoût.
Get a tasty start with an oniony flavor base
When cooking a ragoût, it helps to have a bit of a plan in mind and to think in steps. That way, the vegetables will be cooked to the right degree and the stew will have layers of flavor. See Timing vegetables for best texture for guidelines on cooking times.