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Tried and True
This stew is a star
The basics of ratatouille are simple to master, and it works perfectly as a side dish or a main course.
By Chris Sherman
Published June 20, 2007
Perhaps this is the year we credit an animated rat with teaching us how to spell ratatouille.
Remy, a foodie rat who would be a chef, and ratatouille, the famous French dish, star in the Disney animated adventure arriving on screens at the end of the month.
Once you see Ratatouille - with our hero rat-chef in a grand Parisian kitchen filled with copper pots and tall toques - you might want to cook some at home.
Allow me to show you how. The cooking of this classic farmhouse vegetable stew is far easier than the battle facing mon ami Remy, who fights rodent-phobic prejudice in restaurants.
The title dish is rib-sticking, peasant vegetarianism. Simply cook tomatoes, zucchini and other squash slowly in a stove-top skillet with the glories of the South of France: olive oil, peppers, onion and herbes de Provence, especially thyme. The dried herb blend, which usually includes rosemary, marjoram, basil, bay leaf, thyme and sometimes lavender, is available in the spice aisle of most grocery stores.
Ratatouille (pronounced ra-ta-TOO-ee) is nearly idiot-proof. In all the years it has been a staple in our house, with many ad hoc variations, it has gone wrong only if I hurried the cooking down to 10 minutes.
All it takes is another 10 or 15 minutes; the ingredients are, after all, vegetables of the softer sort.
Anytime I have eggplant and tomatoes on hand, ratatouille comes to mind because the rest of the ingredients are clean-out-the-fridge, run-of-the-garden flexible.
I'll add summer squash, carrot shreds, fennel, bell peppers and mushrooms. If you must have protein, add ham, prosciutto or bacon, or cook with a bit of ground lamb. In the countries that ring the Mediterranean, it has been made a hundred ways.
Texture and consistency are flexible too, from a chunky stew to a thick tomato sauce you can eat with a fork.
Eating is easy, too. Ratatouille is anytime dining and a longtime keeper in the fridge.
Hot at the center of the plate, it's a robust red-wine dinner with rice, oven-browned potatoes or crusty French bread; but it's grand with lamb, roast pork or grilled shrimp.
It may be better cold for a picnic lunch or as spreadable dip for pita bread with a bottle of chilled rose. (Caponata, the Italian version spiked with olives, is almost always cold.)
Remy's animated reminder of the joy of ratatouille is well-timed. It's perfect summer dining, rustic enough to serve alongside burgers and as a lively cold supper.
Good time for shopping too. As Florida's tomato season winds down, tomatoes and other summer crops around the country are coming in.
Don't be afraid
The only real debate among fans is whether nature invented ratatouille to show off tomatoes or eggplant. I say eggplant, because a bumper crop of eggplant is a stumper and this spicy casserole may be the best and highest use of eggplant. (For tomatoes, I give the honor to the BLT.)
Think of ratatouille as an eggplant dish, you won't mind beefing up fresh tomatoes with tomato puree or tomato paste, one of the great cheaters in the pantry.
It's past time to get over the fear of eggplant. You can salt, drain and dry eggplant but you don't have to. I like eggplant's purple black sheen (aubergine to the fashionistas) but if you don't, skip the fussy peeling. Instead, whack the skin off with six or eight slices of a strong kitchen knife and you won't lose much flesh.
The key is to chop most of zucchini and other squash the same size, say 1-inch cubes. Eggplant, however, can be chopped or sliced; it will meld into the tomatoes.
The first step is to saute or sweat down onion and peppers at medium heat, then add the eggplant and squash with herbs and watch them brown. Add tomatoes and garlic and cook covered briefly, remove cover and cook down to desired consistency.
You can add mozzarella or goat cheese in the last minutes or top at the table with grated Parmesan.
Skillet cooking like this is handy and informative - you can watch how each ingredient cooks.
Be sure to save some for the refrigerator. It'll get better while you're not looking.
1 eggplant (1 1/2 to 2 pounds) peeled and cut in 1-inch cubes
About 1/2 cup olive oil, divided
2 zucchini cut into 1/4-inch slices
1 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded and sliced
1 large green bell pepper, cored seeded and sliced
1 large onion, sliced
2 cups tomatoes, chopped, peeled, seeded
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 cup minced fresh basil leaves (or 2 teaspoons dried)
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- In a colander, toss eggplant with salt to let bitter juices drain off for 20 minutes. Pat dry.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- In a large skillet over medium heat, warm 2 tablespoons of oil until hot, add half the eggplant stirring occasionally 5 to 7 minutes or until soft. With a slotted spoon transfer the eggplant to a casserole. Repeat with remaining eggplant and two more tablespoons of oil. Stir occasionally for 3 minutes. Transfer to casserole.
- Repeat with zucchini. Place slices with oil as needed in hot skillet, for three to five minutes. Then transfer zucchini with slotted spoon to casserole.
- Add 2 more tablespoons of oil and saute bell peppers 5 minutes or until softened. Add to eggplant in casserole.
- Using the same skillet, saute onion in 1 tablespoon of oil for 7 minutes or until golden. Add to other ingredients in casserole.
- Then add to the casserole the tomatoes, tomato paste, garlic, basil, thyme, bay leaf, salt and pepper.
- Stir to combine the ingredients, cover casserole and bake for 30 minutes.
Serves 4 to 6.
Cook's notes: Ratatouille is endlessly flexible and variable in cooking method and ingredients beyond the essential eggplant and tomato.
This recipe uses a classic, slow technique but ratatouille can be cooked entirely on top of the stove and more quickly without peeling or seeding. Ingredients can be left chunky or cooked to a puree as desired.
Add feta, goat cheese, mozzarella or Parmesan at the end if you wish.
Serving notes: Ratatouille can be an all-vegetable entree, side dish or used as a filling in crepes and pita sandwiches. Cold, it is good at lunch or as a relish.
Source: The Best of France by Evie Righter (Collins Publishers, 1992)
About the series
Tried and True is a monthly feature focusing on classic recipes with instruction on how to make them at home. The techniques aren't difficult and once mastered can be used to prepare other recipes.