AND THE LIVING (AND EATING) IS EASY
The very first ratatouille I remember making, although heaven knows that there must have been others before, was for our wedding lunch. Eggplant and zucchini, tomatoes and garlic long simmered until tender, the flavors mellowing like old gentlemen growing tender and drowsy in the mid-summer heat, yet concentrating into something intensely sweet with a hint of the smoky, was nestled inside delicately bland choux pastries. A rustic buffet reminiscent of a pastoral picnic spread out before the dozen guests, hunks of artisan cheese and loaves of baguettes, terrines and pâté surrounded by crispy cornichons, summer salads seasonal and fresh, tangy Lemon Chicken washed down so elegantly with an abundance of Champagne. And my own ratatouille snuggled inside choux. A wedding meal prepared by the bride and groom, a wedding feast fit for a king.
Ratatouille is quintessential French home cooking in my book. Every Frenchman and woman seems to either have his or her very own potager, kitchen garden, or a neighbor with one and its anticipated overflow. And every French marketplace is abundant in the staples of zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes and onions. Summer plenty in aubergine, jade and red, the pale gold of papery onion skins, the violet-streaked creamy white of garlic bulbs set snowy against the deep greens of basil and parsley cry out to be taken home. Ratatouille seems to be in the repertoire of each and every French kitchen, the favorite dish made with these garden standards. The essence of warm summer days, a hint of garden parties and picnics in wide-open fields, ratatouille is the one dish I forever associate with my French life. It is here that I learned to make it, it is here that I fell in love with this so simple yet invitingly complex dish.
The heart of summer vacation, ratatouille is the one dish that has followed us around throughout the years from the Tuscan countryside to the Brittany shore, from steamy Parisian kitchens to breezy Nantes afternoons. Innumerable days spent stirring pots of fragrant herbed vegetables to be eaten as a side with a roasted chicken or as a vegetarian main served over rice, hot off the stove or tepid, the flavors growing even more intense with time. Leftovers reheated or blended into soup, our own style of gazpacho then showered with feta, this is a meal that finds its way to our table all summer long, every summer since I can remember. The regularity with which one is greeted by ratatouille in French homes, finding its way onto buffet tables, the ideal accompaniment to a barbecue, places it squarely on the list of classics, surely a traditional summer specialty.
Ratatouille just fits my lifestyle. I rarely plan ahead (unless I am over-planning) and when the desire to cook sweeps over me I want something I can ad-lib depending on mood and season, something I can practically put together without thought or effort. I love the soothing, satisfying feel of chopping vegetables, or stirring and simmering, watching as each vegetable weeps and melts, smooth and silky, into the next. Yet I have often stated that I am more baker than cook and something about creating a savory dish scares me just a little bit. So something that practically cooks and flavors itself, something that can be altered and added to as I go along, ratatouille rarely goes wrong. I can mix and adapt the ingredients depending upon what I have in my pantry and what I bring home from the market. I can make it ahead of time and let it sit – doesn’t it always taste even better the day after? Fresh chopped herbs or great pinches of dried, half a stock cube for an extra kick of flavor or not, chopped fresh red or yellow peppers or roasted and peeled for an intensely sweet and smoky touch, with eggplant or without, fresh ripe tomatoes or canned, ratatouille is as versatile as it is good.
Most of my American friends and readers know of ratatouille, this French classic, from Julia Child and Mastering the Art of French Cooking. This would have been the Grand Dame of French Cooking’s 100th birthday and YC Media and Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., launched the JC100 (@JC100 or #jc100) national campaign involving restaurants, chefs, bookstores, and bloggers, in order to celebrate Julia and her legacy. Their goal is to raise one million voices in tribute to Julia, and I am extremely honored that I was asked to participate. A panel of culinary luminaries, including celebrity chef Thomas Keller and food writer Amanda Hesser, has selected their most beloved 100 Julia Child recipes and since May 7th, one of her many recipes is highlighted every Monday. This last week (I am always late), Julia Child’s ratatouille recipe was chosen.
My own ratatouille, although obviously quite similar to Julia’s, was taught to me by my mother-in-law, my husband and in watching various French friends cook, and my own today is, as always, ad libbed. I chose not to use eggplant, which I feel prolongs the cooking too much when I am pressed for time. Add the chopped onion all at once with the vegetables or precook to caramelize. I roasted my red peppers for, as I always say, sweet, smoky roasted red peppers make anything tomato-based taste better. I used canned cherry tomatoes – sweeter and more flavorful than canned plum tomatoes, in my humble opinion. Slow simmer in a regular heavy pot or Dutch oven or quick cook in a pressure cooker when rushed for time, simply cooking off any excess liquid once the vegetables are cooked and tender and the lid is removed. Easy does it.
Summer sunshine comes and goes, it flits around and through Nantes like butterflies, always moving, always just out of reach. One day grim and rainy gray, one day brilliantly warm and bright. I get my summer warmth from what I find on the marketplace, the sweet, sweet, ruby red cherries, the fragrant stone fruit and aromatic fresh herbs, the abundance of local tomatoes. And ratatouille, the very essence, the heart, everything that makes summer….summer.
Add more or less of each ingredient to taste. Increase quantities for more ratatouille. My recipe serves 4.
1 large red pepper (or a yellow or green pepper, if you prefer)
1 yellow onion
3 – 4 zucchini
2 cloves garlic
1 can crushed tomatoes or cherry tomatoes
Fresh or dried herbs: basil, thyme, mint *
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil for cooking
* This is the mix of herbs I prefer. You could eliminate the mint and replace it with flat-leaf parsley, if desired.
Rinse, pat dry and trim the pepper; remove and discard stem and seeds. Cut into 5 or 6 large pieces and press flat on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Roast under the grill of the oven until the skin is charred black and bubbling. Carefully remove from the oven and slip the pieces of charred pepper into a plastic bag. Let the pepper sit until cooled during which time the condensation in the plastic due to the heat of the peppers will lift much of the skin up off of the flesh. Simply pull each piece out of the plastic bag and slip a thin, sharp knife blade between the skin and the flesh and lift off the skin and discard. Slice the flesh into strips or bite-sized pieces and set aside.
Clean and trim the zucchini and slice into thick coins. Peel, trim and chop or mince the garlic. Set aside.
Trim and chop the onion. Add a couple tablespoons of olive to a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven and heat. Add the chopped onions and cook over medium or medium-low heat, stirring often, until the onion bits are very tender and golden brown around the edges.
Add the prepared zucchini and the garlic to the onions and cook, stirring often, until just beginning to become tender and slightly colored around the edges. Add the can of tomatoes and the roasted red pepper. Add a handful of fresh, chopped basil and a branch of fresh thyme along with a bit of mint if you like. Or a pinch of each of dried herbs. Salt and pepper. Add enough water to barely cover and allow to simmer for 20 to 30 minutes or until all of the vegetables are very tender, adding water as needed so the ratatouille doesn’t dry out and burn.
When the ratatouille is cooked to perfection, taste and add more herbs or salt or pepper as desired. Serve as a side dish to grilled or roasted meat or sausages or over rice or pasta as a vegetarian main. Serve hot or room temperature. This is ideal for lunch, dinner, a barbecue, a buffet or a picnic.