A friend told me the other day that Ratatouille was a favorite dish, but just too complicated and time consuming to make. Blink. Blink. "Really?" says I.
Yes, I suppose that it can be a complex dish to make - if you're a classically trained chef. In a cozy little bistro in Provence. I'm not. You're probably not. But, learn to make this deceptively simple dish and you'll forgive your friends for thinking that your cooking chops just might be more impressive than they are.
You might not even know what Ratatouille is - and, it's not the little mouse in the movie.
Ratatouille is a classic end-of-summer French stew that's fun to say (rat-tuh-TOO-ee) and easier to make than you might think. It's packed with healthy, fresh produce: tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini and yellow squash, and sweet peppers (any color you choose!). For those of us with gardens or access to a decent farmer's market, it's a great way to use those incredible vegetables. Even better, it's a dish that get's better as it sits - rather like chili - and you can serve it at room temperature or warm. This dish 'travels' very, very well. To a pot-luck or a picnic. You'll just need to stand back and prepare for the rave reviews and demands for the 'recipe'.
Only, there isn't really a recipe. Really. There just doesn't have to be. This is a demo in how the French cooks at home.
ME: "Well, how much of that should I use?".
That's how my Tante Jacqueline, in the mountain village of Neuvéglise, in the Cantal region of France would reply. Snort! If you have a lot of tomatoes and not so much squash, peppers and eggplant, then that's how you'll roll. And, vice versa. Or. Well, you know what I mean. Love more garlic? Add more. This dish is the ultimate in culinary improv. Make it your own.
But, like all of my dishes and lessons - you must learn to craft a proper Mis-en-place (pronounced "MEEZ-on-plahs"). This will make your cooking more successful, satisfying, delicious and fun. Mis-en-place - is chef lingo for having your 'stuff together'. Having your ingredients prepped and ready to rock and roll. The first best ingredient in cooking is this: Think. Restaurant kitchens - where this term originally developed - are usually a collection of tiny, cramped spaces, each dedicated to a single task, such as a sauté station. You can't have a half dozen cooks running back and forth after that forgotten utensil or ingredient without chaos ensuing. In the home kitchen, it's different, of course. At home, you have more time and space, but it means being prepared. You've thought it through, made sure that you have all the ingredients you need, and the tools to make it happen. You've thought about the steps needed to get the meal on the table. You'll do 'this'. And, then 'that'. Followed by sitting down to relax with the fruits of your labors. And, a glass of excellent wine. French wine. I particularly enjoy pairing this dish with a Beaujolais Rosé (Domaine Dupeuble) that I get from Kermit Lynch, in Berkeley, California. From the Beaujolais area near Lyon, France, this wine has - for me - just the right balance of fresh fruit and minerality to play well with Ratatouille. But, you might find that a different wine speaks to you.
Onions and garlic chopped and minced. Eggplant, zucchini and yellow summer squash cut up into bite-sized chunks. Check. Sweet peppers seeded and sliced. Fresh tomatoes diced. Check. Broth at the ready. Seasonings handy. Check. And, if you were to look behind me? Everything over by the sink is cleaned up. I don't need a big mess to become an even bigger mess to clean up later. Clean as you cook, and you'll have way more fun.
For me, the secret to the success of my Ratatouille is cooking the different vegetables in sequence. I cook the onions and garlic. Remove from the pan. Sauté the peppers. Remove. Sauté the eggplant and squashes. Add the onions, garlic and peppers back in. Add the tomatoes. You see what I mean?
Give the onions and garlic the love they deserve.
Peppers. Season a little bit as you go, building layers of flavor.
Wet Sauté the zucchini and summer squash. Splashes of broth/juice from canned tomatoes add incredible richness.
The eggplant becomes meltingly tender.
Wet sauté each vegetable in a mix of the juice drained from canned, diced, no added sodium tomatoes, combined with a bit of water. You won't believe how rich and flavorful each layer becomes.
Remember to 'cook' the tomato paste. Cooking it over the medium heat for at least a couple of minutes removes the 'raw' sharpness that it can impart, and reduces it to a sweet, mellow flavor.
I like to add a decent red wine to my ratatouille. Be sure to let the alcohol cook off, leaving just the nice aromatics that the wine imparts.
Remember that different vegetables, depending on their size and density, cook at different rates. You give each one the attention it needs, then blend it together.
Now, it's time to taste, taste and taste some more. Balance the flavors. I add a pinch of salt to each ingredient as I cook it. Add layers of flavor. Once it's all been combined, I add some acid (fresh lemon juice or wine), then some tomato paste for rich sweetness. Adjust the salt and pepper. Now, you're cooking like a French person! All that's left is to put the lid on and let it simmer on the lowest possible setting. Let all the ingredients get to know each other. Eat it now. Or, put it in the fridge and have it tomorrow.
Serve the Ratatouille alongside a wonderful salad, with some good bread. You can even serve it over some pasta.
I resist giving up recipes. It's so rigid. Constrained. But, here, I've simply listed a sort of ratio that you might follow. Or, not.
A pound of fresh tomatoes.
Half dozen of those mini sweet peppers.
One medium Japanese eggplant. You can substitute a regular Italian eggplant, too.
One each medium zucchini and yellow crookneck or summer squash.
One small onion.
5-6 cloves of garlic.
A couple of cups of vegetable broth - no/low sodium.
Half cup of white or rosé wine.
3-4 tablespoons of tomato paste.
Herbs and spices:
½ tsp each of Oregano and Thyme. If you like Fennel seed, crush up a similar amount of that. Then, the same of Red Pepper Flakes. Oh, and Basil. A couple teaspoons of Paprika. Fresh ground pepper.
Now, if you're as much of an herb and spice hound as I am, you might like this pre-blended mix called Summer Garden Salt-Free Herb Blend from The Spice House in Chicago, IL. I buy this in larger quantities, and keep the extra in the freezer. I go through a LOT of this.
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