Thursday, August 18, 2005


(Pronunced: rah-tah-tooeeeeeee).

What they say about Borscht is also true for this Provencal vegetable stew: there are as many recipes for it as there are cantankerous, self-righteous grandmothers in the native region. Some cantankerous, self-righteous French grandmothers I have met or had invoked at me insist that each ingredient for ratatouille must be cooked in its individual pot--so as to concentrate the flavors, presumably. This technique relies on three conditions that do not ordinarily obtain in 21st-century metropolitan America:
1) a ginormous kitchen
2) unlimited quantities of cast-iron cookware
3) that the marginal returns in authentic taste are more valuable than a woman's hourly wage.
Vast quantities of healthy, delicious ratatouille can be produced without driving one insane.

Equipment needed:
one massive crockpot (cast-iron preferred but not mandatory)
one large pot
one large strainer
vegetable peeler
sharp knives (probably two: one for peeling and one for hacking at vegetables)
cutting board
one large bowl
a hunk of cheesecloth
a fastener for the cheescloth (I usually use a rubber band)
Ingredients needed:
(The ratio here is what happened last night, but you should know that the "proper" ratio of ingredients is hotly disputed by militant French grandmothers and their proxies.)
one large or two petite eggplant(s)
three zucchinis
two good-sized yellow onions
four cloves of garlic
one green pepper
two red peppers
four beefsteak tomatoes
olive oil

For seasoning:
four-six laurel leaves (if you substitute with bay leaves, use two-three)
a hefty pinch of thyme
a fat dose of dried fines herbes
a chunk of fresh basil
a light touch of coriander
four-six black peppercorns (I inexplicably misplaced my pepper grinder)
a ready supply of seasalt
If your appetite is intrigued, click through the link for what to do with all this goodness.

1. Peel and cube the eggplant and zucchini.

2. Put about a 1/4 cup of olive oil in your crockpot. You really don't want to skimp on the olive oil here because when you put your cubed eggplant and zucchini in, you need the olive oil to brown and seal the flavor of these ingredients.
(Note: if you intend to serve your ratatouille to French people of any age, you should deseed both your eggplant and your zucchini by cutting out the seed-bearing meat with a knife.)
3. While the eggplant and zucchini are browning over medium-low heat, prepare the following:
a. peel and slice finely your onions, put aside.
b. peel and mince your garlic, put aside.
c. peel and cube your peppers, put aside.

4. When your eggplant and zucchini are browned and starting to get mushy--but before they've lost all structural integrity--remove them from the pot and chuck them in that large bowl.

5. Put another two-three tablespoons of olive oil into the same crockpot, turn heat back up to medium-low, and put in the onions to blanche (the soft yellowing of cooked onions rather than the sweet brown of caramelization).

6. Put the peppers and garlic in with the onions to soften. While that's going on--remember to stir every few minutes!--prepare:
a. peel and deseed tomatoes, cut into chunks, put aside.
(Trick! in order to peel tomatoes, you must heat them in that large pot of water until they show signs of cracking. Then strain the hothothot tomatoes, run a whole bunch of cool water on them, then let them sit in cool water. The peels should then slip right off, without taking too much tomato-meat with them. Cut them into quarters and scrape out the seeds with your fingers. Sadly, this annoying subroutine shouldn't be ignored, even for non-French guests.)
b. prepare your seasoning-bag (bouquet garnis) by chucking all seasoning ingredients but the salt into your square of cheesecloth and fastening it securely.
(The bouquet garnis may seem like an annoying affectation, but it's a lot easier to remove a sodden lump of cheesescloth than it is to pick bits of laurel leaves out of your teeth at the dinner table.)
7. Put the chopped tomatoes in with the softened peppers and onions. Add your bouquet garnis. Cook for a little while, say, five minutes, then dump back in your eggplant and zucchinis.

8. Let 'er cook for another half-hour or so. Don't let the heat get hotter than medium at the very most, and keep the lid mostly on at this stage to retain moisture.

9. Maybe make some rice to serve the ratatouille with. That large pot can come back in handy.

10. Add some salt to your ratatouille. Serve.

Other uses for your ratatouille left-overs:
--omlette filling
--sandwich filling
--deep flavors for a pasta or a pizza sauce


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