Ratatouille. What a funny little word for such a timeless dish. (It comes from the French touiller, which means "to stir"). And now, more than ever, home cooks all across the country are stewing up various versions of this French provencal dish, after seeing the new Pixar movie of the same name. It utilizes summer's bounty of fresh veggies- eggplant (but aubergine sounds so much better, doesn't it?), tomatoes, sweet onions and peppers, and squash and zucchini (courgettes). The beauty of this dish is that no matter how it is made, rustic or refined, stewed or baked, diced or sliced, the sweet and earthy ingredients invariably shine.
The movie version of ratatouille was created by chef Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in Napa Valley. In fact, he was one of the culinary consultants on set. His animated version was his "modern take" on the traditional dish, in which the vegetables are thin sliced on a mandoline and arranged artfully in an oval casserole dish, covered with parchment, and baked. It is more like a tian (a Provençal dish of baked gratineed mixed vegetables) than a stew. I prefer the more rustically imperfect version, as I like the flavors and textures to be melded together.
Having originated in the sun-drenched gardens of the Niçoise countryside, ratatouille is a great pairing to most meats, especially game and lamb. I've seen recipes that use all sorts of combinations of aromatics including thyme, basil, parsley, and herbes de provence. It's flavorful enough to be served on its own, or as a great accompaniment with coddled eggs for breakfast.
I consulted one of my favorite cookbooks for a recipe- Chez Panisse Cooking by Paul Bertolli with Alice Waters. According to Bertolli, "ratatouille is best served cold, with grilled bread or anchovies....and when refrigerated for several days, will improve in flavor." In this version, the vegetables are all sauteed seperately, except for the eggplant which is roasted, and then combined at the end with minimal stirring to preserve the integrity of the original slices. Yes, I will most definitely be making this again this week!
Chez Panisse Cooking
4 Japanese eggplant, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 yellow onion, sliced
4 bell peppers, sliced 1/4 inch strips
2 yellow squash, sliced 1/4 inch thick
2 zucchini, sliced 1/4 inch thick
4 tomato, seeded and diced
2 tbsp fruity red wine vinegar
2 tbsp tomato paste (my own addition)
1 tbsp capers
2 tbsp pitted Nicoise olives, chopped
2 tbsp chopped parsley
1 tbsp chopped basil
2 cloves garlic, minced
extra virgin olive oil
Roast the eggplant with 3 tbsp olive oil, 1/4 cup water, salt and pepper in a 400F oven, for 20-25 minutes. Cover the pan with foil to allow the eggplant to steam cook while in the oven.
In a large saucepot, saute the onion with 3 tbsp olive oil until soft and light brown. Add the peppers, season with salt and pepper, and cook over high heat until peppers start to brown. Add the vinegar, and cook 1 minute. Transfer to a bowl.
Saute the squash with 2 tbsp olive oil until tender. Add the reserved onion and peppers back in, along with the diced tomato. Fold a few times, but do not stir. Bring to a simmer and cook for 2 min. Remove from heat and let cool. Then add the capers, olives, parsley, basil and garlic. If necessary, correct the seasoning with more vinegar, salt or pepper.
Before serving, drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil over each portion.