Thursday, August 12, 2010

Ratatouille: A Bowl of Summer

Do you ratatouille?

Perhaps you are one of the lucky ones who grew up with this French vegetable stew.  Perhaps it's even your Proustian madeleine, as it was for the restaurant critic in Pixar's "Ratatouille."  Perhaps you have your grandmother's perfected recipe carefully folded and tucked away in your file.

No such luck for me. I only discovered the joy that is ratatouille about a decade ago.  I had a version of it as a side at a restaurant in San Francisco. I didn't order it -- a little bowl of stewed vegetables just arrived, unsolicited, next to my fish. I didn't even know what it was, at that point.  A few bites later, and all I knew was that I had never quite experienced the perfect marriage of summer vegetables until that moment.  That first little taste of ratatouille was so divine that I couldn't stop talking about it, thinking about it, dreaming about it.  I was obsessed with the idea that a quintessentially summer dish could be just as warming and comforting as a winter stew.  And I marveled over how I could taste each vegetable separately -- the zucchini, the eggplant, the tomatoes -- but at the same time, the melange was was an entirely different and heightened experience.  In ratatouille, the sum is truly greater than its parts. 

To get to that transcendental end result, however, you must pay strict attention to the quality of each ingredient.  Ratatouille is a profoundly simple dish:  summer vegetables and some herbs.  Every ingredient must shine, shine, shine.  So if you aren't yet shopping at your local farmer's market, this is the moment to start.  If you start with gorgeous vegetables, your ratatouille will be like eating a bowlful of summer.  Even better:  a summer in Provence. 

I tried a lot of ratatouille recipes over the past few summers, trying to recapture that warm and sunny comfort food.  The recipe that follows is an amalgamation of the versions I enjoyed most.  Last year, I hit on Molly Wizenburg’s version, which calls for roasting the eggplant. That has been the key, for me. My recipe makes a ton, but since it is better the second day (and third!), that’s sort of the point. Also, see “options” at the bottom for a great way to use leftovers as a pizza topping. In fact, I must insist that you reserve some ratatouille to use as a pizza topping.  It's simply incredible.

Source:  Adapted from A Homemade Life, Molly Wizenburg, and French Women Don't Get Fat, Mireille  Guilano
Serves:  A lot all at once -- maybe 8-12?  Or 2 people over a 3-4 days
Time:  About an hour and half, although some is unattended

•3 lbs. eggplant, sliced crosswise into 1-inch-thick rounds

•3 lbs. zucchini, halved lengthwise and sliced into ½-inch thick half-moons

•3 lbs. tomatoes (Romas are nice, but any will work), seeded and chopped roughly

•12 cloves garlic, chopped

•2 onions, thinly sliced

•Salt and pepper

•Sprigs of basil, thyme, or parsley – or a combo (I like a combo, as long as there is lots of basil!)
•A few bay leaves

•Olive oil

1. Preheat the oven to 400. Prep all the veggies as described above. Make a bouquet garni out of the herbs of your choice and the bay leaves. (Note for novices:  a bouquet garni is a bundle of herbs, tied with twine or in cheesecloth, used to flavor soups and stews.)

2. If your eggplant is very large or seedy, you might want to salt it.  Just lay it out on some paper towels and sprinkle with salt.  Let it sit.  Brush the salt off, press the slices lightly with paper towels, and proceed with the recipe.  This step is optional.

3.  Coat a jelly roll pan with some olive oil. Place the eggplant rounds on the pan, flipping them and rubbing them into the oil to make sure they are coated all over. You might need to use two pans, or bake them in two shifts.  Bake for 30 mins., flipping the slices halfway. They should be soft and lightly browned. Allow them to cool and then chop into 1-inch pieces. (This step can be done a day ahead of time, if needed.)

4. Warm some olive oil over medium heat in a large, deep skillet or heavy pot. Start sautéing the onions. When they are soft and translucent, add the garlic and the bouquet garni. Add the zucchini and cook for about 10 mins, until golden and just tender. Add the tomatoes and cook another 10 mins. or so.

5. Finally, add the eggplant to the pot. Cook another 15-25 mins, until everything is soft and the flavors have melded together. Remove the bouquet garni, pressing out the juices. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add some more olive oil if it needs to be rounded out. Serve warm or at room temperature, with a lot of bread for sopping up juices. (I also love some Pecorino Romano on top!)  It's delicious right away, but if you're serving this at a party, I'd suggest making it a day in advance, as the medly of flavors really comes together over time.


1. Many recipes add red bell peppers, but I prefer it without them. Feel free to add some, probably right after the onions.

2. Some serving ideas for the leftovers: with a fried egg on top; over some steamed and smashed new potatoes; drain off the liquid (which is yummy by itself!) and thicken over medium heat, then serve mixed with some cheese, next to a grilled piece of chicken or meat -- I especially love to serve it with sausages.

3. Here’s how to turn the leftovers into a pizza topping:  Drain off the liquid. Beat an egg into the leftover ratatouille. Spread it on pizza dough (either homemade or purchased). Sprinkle on a bunch of Pecorino Romano (or Parmesan, if you prefer). Bake like a regular pizza. This is so delicious that my pizza-obsessive husband recently chose to have seconds of the ratatouille pizza instead of his regular favorite (sausage, mushroom, and onions). 

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