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.
First off, start with a reliable base: alliums (shallots, onions, scallions, garlic, leeks, or a combination) sautéed in butter or olive oil. This would also be the time to add hardy herbs like thyme, rosemary, or bay leaf (I'll get to the more delicate ones in a moment), as well as a bit of spice, such as cayenne or red pepper flakes. It's important not to hurry this initial flavor-building step. Give the sautéed ingredients time enough to mingle and take on some color and you'll be rewarded with a tastier ragoût.
Once the onions are gently browned, add the longest-cooking vegetables, such as carrots (which generally take longer than anything else, by the way) and other root vegetables. Let them soften and color just a bit in the pan. Then, proceed with the next-to-longest cooking vegetables, and onward (the sequence for the Farmhouse Ragoût is a great way to get a sense of how to order things).
After the vegetables have started to soften, add some liquid. It can be vegetable stock, chicken broth, water, a little wine, or even the cooking liquid that you might have saved from other vegetables. If you're using tomatoes, for instance, their juices generally provide enough liquid to enrich your ragoût. In these recipes, I've called for just enough liquid to simmer the vegetables. This is so that it combines with the vegetable juices and reduces into a flavorful broth as the ragoût cooks.
Make a simple braise by layering vegetables in sequence
After the onion base starts cooking, add carrots.
Add long-cooking potatoes at about the same time.
Cut as you go, and add wax beans next.
Add tomatoes and their juices, cover, and simmer.
In the final minutes of cooking, add delicate greens and herbs. Spinach will need just a minute or two. At this point, I like to add tender herbs, such as parsley, chervil, or basil, too. See Finishing touches boost flavor for more ideas on last-minute finishing touches that will add flavor.
Whichever vegetables you choose, a ragoût is something you'll want to coddle and hover over, not just walk away from. No two will be the same—and I've never made one I didn't like.
Finishing touches boost flavor and bring a ragoût together
When that lovely simmering pot of tender vegetables is done, often a finishing touch is just the thing to help unify and juke up flavors.
- Chopped parsley and garlic add color and flavor when stirred in or sprinkled on just before serving. Also known as a persillade, this chopped mixture can be varied by adding grated lemon zest, as I've done with the Artichoke Ragoût. Although parsley is the herb for which a persillade is named, you can also use fresh chervil, tarragon, dill, basil, or a mix.
- A drizzle of fruity olive oil adds richness and helps emulsify the liquid into a sauce, as does a pat of sweet butter. I like to stir the butter in just before spooning the ragoût into soup plates, while olive oil is especially nice drizzled on each individual dish. For the Farmhouse Ragoût, a purée made with basil and olive oil nicely rounds out the dish.
- A squeeze of fresh lemon juice or a dash of your favorite vinegar will unify flavors and bring them to the fore. Add it just before serving, because as the acid sits with the vegetables, the colors begin to fade.