Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Illustrated Guide to Ratatouille

I first tried ratatouille in the house of my host family while studying in Aix-en-Provence during my senior year of college.  I wish I could tell you some lovely story about this experience -- how we went to the market each week, how my French mother taught me to pick the best produce, how we made meals together, how much I loved having dinner with my host family every night while practicing French, and how I was knocked off my feet by my first taste of ratatouille.

But that is not my story.  I ended up with a very young couple who didn't want to have anything to do with me.  If they were my real parents, they would have given birth to me when they were 7 years old.  They were happy to provide me with room and board (for which they were well paid), but it was quickly becoming clear that my hanging out in the kitchen, trying to help with dishes, and asking all sorts of questions was frustrating to them.  What did we do during dinner?  We watched TV.  Every single night.  I vividly remember the surreal experience of watching Simpsons and South Park in French.  

My first ratatouille was about the same quality as the rest of my experience of living with my host family.  I had to wonder why was this dish of zucchini boiled in tomato sauce so famous.  And even back then, I couldn't help trying to fix it in my head.  "If only we could brown those zucchini first..." I thought to myself.

As I later discovered, there are as many versions of ratatouille as cooks in Provence, and some of those recipes are really stunning.  But they all boil down to two types: put everything in a pot and cook it all together vs. cook each ingredient separately to perfection and only then combine them all.  I am definitely the second type of ratatouille cook.  As Julia Child said, the best ratatouille is neither quick nor easy, but it's worth the effort.

Don't worry about the exact proportions or about missing one of the ingredients.  The only requirements (at least to me) are onions, eggplants (or zucchini or summer squash), and tomatoes.  Ideally, I like to add all sorts of summer squash, sweet peppers, garlic, rosemary, sage, thyme, and oregano, but I'll take what I can get at the market.

You can cut your vegetables into all sorts of shapes as long as they are even so that they cook the same amount of time.  Sometimes I slice the veggies (like in the pictures below) and sometimes I dice (cut them into cubes).  Whichever way you choose, aim for 1/2 inch thickness.  Since zucchini and eggplants cook the best when salted first (to remove extra liquid), it is most practical to slice them lengthwise, salt, dry, and then dice if you want smaller pieces of vegetables.

The only reason to use fresh tomatoes in this dish is if they are fabulous.  It is a lot more work, since you'll have to blanch them, peel them and seed them, so don't waste your energy if you are working with styrofoam.  Just use canned.  I really like Muir Glen and Hunt's brands.


2 medium eggplants (Round Sicilian eggplant is my favorite type to use)
2 medium summer squash (such as zucchini, yellow squash, cousa, etc)
2 large tomatoes (or about 14 oz good diced canned tomatoes)
1 large yellow onion, 1/2 inch dice
1 red, orange, or yellow pepper, 1/2 inch dice
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 Tbsp minced fresh sturdy herbs (such as rosemary, sage, savory, thyme, oregano)
1/2 cup olive oil (or as needed)
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Chopped fresh basil or parsley for serving (optional)

Veggie prep

Peel the eggplants and cut them into 1/2 inch thick slices that are roughly 1.5 inches wide and 1.5 inches long.  Cut the squash into 1/2 inch thick semi-circles.  Lay the eggplants and squash out on paper towels in a single layer.  Sprinkle generously with kosher or sea salt, toss to coat both sides and spread out in a single layer.  Let sit for 30 minutes.

If using fresh tomatoes, submerge them into boiling water for exactly 10 seconds.  Using a paring knife, make a cross on the bottom of each tomato and peel.  The skin will come right off, so use a paring knife or your hands, not a peeler.

Cut each tomato through the equator and dig out as many seeds as you can.

Core the tomatoes and cut into 1 inch pieces.  Chop onions, peppers, garlic, and herbs.

Press a layer of paper towels onto eggplants and squash to dry them.

Browning eggplants and squash

Set a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat.  Any skillet is fine as long as it cooks evenly.  To speed things up, I sometimes use 2 skillets.  Add 2 Tbsp olive oil.  When hot, add eggplants and squash in a single layer (whatever fits).  Brown on one side, flip, and brown on the other side.  Remove to a plate lined with a paper towel to absorb oil.  Repeat with the rest of eggplants and squash adding oil as necessary to keep them browning nicely.  Don't be surprised that it takes a lot of oil.  Feel free to stack veggies and paper towels on the same plate.  They don't need to be in one layer after they are browned.

Assembling the stew
You can use any heavy pot or deep skillet as long as it cooks evenly and is not seasoned cast-iron (you can't put acidic ingredients, like tomatoes, into it).  Enamel covered cast-iron is a wonderful choice and so is stainless steel with aluminum or copper core.

Set the pot over medium-low heat.  Add 2 Tbsp olive oil, onions, peppers, and a generous pinch of salt.  Cook stirring occasionally until onions are translucent and tender, 12-15 minutes.  Add garlic and herbs and cook stirring until fragrant, about 1 minute.

Add tomatoes, turn up the heat and bring to a simmer.  Turn the heat back down and simmer gently until tomato juices thicken, 10-15 minutes.

Stir in eggplants and squash and bring back to a simmer.  Simmer gently for 15 minutes.  Take off heat and let sit for at least an hour before serving.  Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and balsamic vinegar.

Ratatouille tastes even better the next day, either reheated or cold.  I personally like it cold the best, topped with fresh basil.


Cyn said...

Hi, Helen.
When I stayed in Aix, our family had a private cook-housekeeper who was quite a good cook.
But I and the two other girls who stayed with them were given our rooms in the upper (third? second?) floor, and we did not get invited to the main living area often, so we mostly had to get our experience with people and food elsewhere. Fortunately, over there, it was pretty easy to eat ok as a student.
Like you, if I'm going to bother with ratatouille, I'm going to do it right. It just doesn't taste great if you throw stuff in a pot and boil the life out of it.

Helen said...

Hi Cyn,

Great to hear from you! It's always fun to hear from Aix alumni :) My host family was actually the only bad part of my experience. All the other people that I met were wonderful and my absolutely favorite bakery in the world is still in Aix, and so is my favorite market.

I took my husband there on a trip before we had kids. I hope to take my kids there too, but at the moment it's a little tricky since we have a 3 year old and expecting another one in 3 weeks.

One day...


Kari said...

Beautiful photos - looks delicious! Curious why you seed the tomatoes? I never bother as they seem to add good flavor. Also, I never worry about putting tomatoes in my cast-iron. It doesn't seem to mess too much with the seasoning - is there another reason to avoid this? Perhaps my pans are so old and well-seasoned that they are virtually indestructible?

Helen said...

Hi Kari,

If tomato seeds getting stuck in your teeth doesn't bother you, you don't have to seed them. In most French and Italian recipes that I know of, the seeds are removed when tomatoes are going to be cooked to get nicer texture.

If you cook acidic ingredients in your seasoned cast-iron pan (I mean the black one, not enamel covered) once in a while, nothing terrible will happen. But if you do it on regular basis, some of the seasoning will come off and your pan will lose some of its non-stickiness. It's also not a very good idea to be simmering wet stuff in seasoned cast iron. Same reason -- it removes some of the seasoning. Seasoned cast iron pans are for frying and searing.

But if you have no trouble doing it in yours, then don't worry about it.


Anonymous said...

Hi Helen,

Looks great. Quick question, Would you describe your method of browning items in a pan evenly (stir, individually, etc.)?


Helen said...

For the most even browning, you want to lay vegetables out in a single layer without crowding. Don't stir. When the first side is brown, flip each piece individually with tongs and cook until the second side is brown. This is only practical if you are cutting pieces into slices. If they are in cubes, flipping each cube is a major pain, so I let the first side brown, then stir and hope that at least most of the pieces end up on some other side.

You also need to add oil as necessary to help pieces brown.


Bruce said...

Confused on the inclusion of balsamic vinegar as it's not a Provencial ingredient. Is this your own addition? What purpose does it serve - don't the tomatoes already provide the tartness?

Helen said...

Is balsamic vinegar my own addition? I wish I came up with this idea, but I had it in a restaurant and loved it. I doubt there is some ratatouille authenticity board that will punish you for not using an "authentic" ingredient. I know of French cooks who use it in their ratatouille. Tomatoes provide some sweetness and acidity, but vinegar underscores it.

The best cooks are the ones who steel ideas from their neighbors. Keep in mind that historically, most of what we know today as French cooking came from Italy, so I am just continuing this tradition :)


Irina said...

Yum! My grandmother used to make a similar dish and now my mom and I make it. For some reason, in our family it is known as "imam bayalda," which is actually the name of a Turkish dish that is only remotely similar to what we make. Basically, we saute some diced onions in olive oil; then add cubed eggplant and carrots; let things brown a bit; add water, tomato paste, and chopped garlic; and simmer everything until tender, seasoning with salt and a bit of sugar. Sometimes fresh tomatoes are added as well. In Russia we used to eat this dish cold as a light supper or part of an appetizer spread, but these days I sometimes eat it warm over rice or pasta for lunch or dinner.

Helen said...

Hi Irina,

I remember Bayalda from my childhood in Moscow too :)

My guess is that most countries have some variation on this theme given that eggplants, squash and tomatoes ripen around the same time.

Here is my absolutely favorite Russian eggplant dish (most likely it's Georgian or Armenian, but it's a dish from my childhood in Moscow). Now that I think about it, it's my favorite eggplant dish from all the cuisines that I know. The only problem is that it's very labor intensive and disappears too quickly.


Irina said...

I've got to try your version of stuffed eggplant slices! I make them exactly the same way as you do except my stuffing contains walnuts instead of carrots - it's like a thick pesto. I was about to say that it is also my favorite way to prepare eggplant but then I remembered that Chinese-style sweet-and-sour eggplant and Thai-style green curry with eggplant are pretty awesome too... With me, these three are tied for first place.

One Season At A Time said...

my host family experience was much the same, i barely ever saw my host mom. she often cooked us dinner and went out herself, no fun. but aix has a great community! i love to hear about people who have lived in aix, i took my husband there this summer to work with a church that i am still in contact with. amazing! ps. new to your blog, i am enjoying it.