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Archive for September, 2014

We’re silly huge Pixar fans, & I worked in the restaurant industry for years, so it’s a mystery to me why it took us so long to see Ratatouille. It was a fantastic film, with lots of food porn & industry jokes & a minimum of my usual shouting at the TV about horrible kitchen practices.

More importantly, it got me thinking about ratatouille.

Specifically, Mum’s ratatouille.

Summer bounty

My folks are from England, but moved to Montreal when they got married in the late 60s. Mum has a lovely library of her old cookbooks from that era, deliciously “modern” guides to entertaining with photos of impossibly glossy architectural feats of Spam & asparagus. One of my favorite things to do as a child (and even now) was to leaf through the flour-filmed pages & plot exorbitant menus…

Mum’s sense of adventure & our time in francocentric Montreal meant that a lot of our routine meals were well beyond the standard family fare. I grew up eating warm crepes with lemon & sugar, salmon en croute, chicken & apricot curries, all sorts of fabulous stuff. But Mum’s mainstay was ratatouille.

Served over brown rice, ratatouille was Mum’s go-to, the dish that popped up with such regularity that when I think of the kitchen in our old house, it smells like tomatoes & peppers & herbs. I assumed everyone ate ratatouille, or something like it. It was veggie stew, really, just with a little pizzazz. No big deal, right?

Then in 3rd grade, I got the bright idea to invite The Popular Girl over for dinner. She didn’t usually give me much more than the time of day, so I don’t know what possessed her to accept, but the evening came & there she was, sitting at our table & trying to figure out what to do with a cloth napkin. Mum understood the need to play it cool – or else she didn’t feel like slaving in the kitchen all day – so she went with the house favorite. Ratatouille, piping hot, over a pile of fluffy, chewy brown rice.

I don’t remember exactly how things played out after Popular Girl got her plate, but it amounted to her declaring that she ONLY ate “chicken, hot dogs, and BASGETTI”. I think Mum dug a few hot dogs out of the freezer & ran them under the broiler to try & salvage the evening, but Popular Girl went home hungry & huffy and I went to bed thoroughly baffled as to how someone so popular could insist on eating like a 3-year-old. It was a bit of a pivotal moment for me, figuring out that popularity had nothing to do with actually being cool…

Crappy phone picture is crappy

So, fast forward thirty-some years, & my 8-year-old is growing up eating all kinds of crazy food just like his mum. I honestly hadn’t made ratatouille for years, but seeing the film made me crave it again, & got C excited to try something new. Ratatouille is perfect for this time of year, late summer/early autumn, when tomatoes & peppers & eggplant are still coming in from the garden, but the weather’s turning cool & inviting. It’s not a difficult dish to make at all, taking little more than chopping & tending for an hour or two, but it hinges on good fresh vegetables. For the love of Pete, don’t make this in February with out-of-season produce – it’ll be… fine. But ratatouille shouldn’t be fine. It should be a late summer symphony in a bowl, rich & bright & so tasty, you want a chunk of bread to sop up the traces left on your plate.

(A word on eggplant: if you don’t like eggplant, I’d argue that you’re cooking it wrong. Done properly, eggplant is smoky & flavorful, not bitter & chewy. Pick small eggplants, with nice tight, glossy skins. Salting the eggplant draws out a lot of moisture & potential bitterness, so don’t skip that step. Finally, make sure you add it early enough in the process that it gets fully cooked & absorbs all the gorgeous flavors of the sauce.)

***

Ratatouille

As usual, this is a total make-it-up-as-I-go recipe, so all amounts are approximate… Yield: about 2 1/2 quarts

1 small/medium traditional eggplant, cut into 1/2 inch cubes

1 t sea salt

1/4 c olive oil

2 medium yellow onions, sliced thin (I like to cut mine end-to-end, instead of across the center, but it totally doesn’t matter)

6-8 cloves garlic, roughly chopped

3-4 bell peppers, assorted colors, cut into rough 3/4-inch pieces

2 small/medium summer squash and/or zucchini, cut into 3/4 inch cubes

2 t dry thyme

1/2 c chopped fresh basil

1 t smoked paprika (yes, smoked, but regular will do in a pinch)

1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, crushed roughly by hand

1 c dry white wine (I use pinot grigio)

Salt & pepper to taste

Sprinkle the eggplant with 1 t of sea salt & pile it into a colander to drain for about 20 minutes while you start the rest of the veggies.

Warm the oil in a large, heavy bottomed pot (if you don’t own a Lodge, get on that – best money you’ll ever spend) over medium heat & add onions. Saute gently with a pinch of salt until soft & translucent. Add chopped garlic & saute for a few more minutes, until fragrant.

Add peppers, stir & let cook while you tend to the eggplant.

Rinse the salted eggplant under cold water & give it a really good shake to get rid of excess moisture. Add it to the pot, along with the summer squash/zucchini. Stir everything well & let it cook until the squash starts to get bright. Add the herbs, paprika, tomatoes & wine & stir well. Add a bit of water if things look too dry, but not too much – this is stew, not soup. Bring the pot up to a lively simmer, stirring frequently, then lower the heat so you have a nice gentle bubbling. Leave your spoon in the pot & add the lid so the pot’s mostly covered but not sealed tight.

Let your ratatouille simmer away for at least an hour, stirring on occasion to make sure nothing’s sticking to the bottom of the pot. Your kitchen will smell REALLY FREAKING GOOD at this point. After an hour, take of the lid & let it simmer another 15 minutes or so to reduce the sauce a little. Taste for salt & pepper.

Warm up some crusty bread, pour yourself a glass of wine, and devour. A few shakes of hot sauce (we like the chipotle Tabasco) would not be amiss, nor would some good goat cheese to spread on your bread.

Bon appetit!

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