Rustic and refined ratatouille
This humble peasant dish is so rich and flavorful, it could almost pass for dessert.
Ratatouille is the essence of early autumn captured in a single pot. Tomatoes, eggplant, squash, peppers, onions, garlic, and herbs are at their peak of freshness and therefore, their best tasting, most locally accessible, and often least costly. One would think cooks everywhere would be snapping up these ingredients at the closest farmers' market and rushing them back to the stove to make multiple batches of ratatouille.Skip to next paragraph
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Mais non. At least in America, ratatouille seems better known as Pixar's delightful animated film by the same name than as a dish that delectably melds some of the best crops of the year. Ratatouille is nowhere to be found in supermarket deli cases, where it could easily coexist beside other prepared foods such as quiche, chicken stir-fry, or manicotti. Forget locating it in the frozen food section, and don't even think to look for it on a restaurant menu.
Some suspect that eggplant is to blame. Fat, purplish-black, and often mushy when cooked, it is perhaps the least-loved vegetable in the land – and it figures prominently in this dish. Others point to ratatouille's lack of sophistication, but there's no one like Thomas Keller to have changed that – for Hollywood, anyway. As consulting chef for the film, the owner of such refined restaurants as The French Laundry in Napa Valley and Per Se in New York, created an upscale ratatouille dubbed "Confit Byaldi," with its elegant spirals of eggplant, tomato, and zucchini placed atop a bed of multicolored peppers.
Ratatouille's beginnings might have been meek, but in many other countries this humble dish has since been elevated to staple status.
Ratatouille (from the Occitan "ratatolha" and the French "touiller," meaning to stir) originated in Nice, France, as a peasant dish that made efficient use of the season's bounty. It turned out to taste good, too, and since then, Provençal cooks have incorporated this stewed-vegetable dish into their repertoires along with such culinary treasures as tapenade, pistou, and bouillabaisse.
There are almost as many methods for making the dish as there are names for it. Some insist on sautéing each vegetable separately, then combining them in layers; others toss them all into sizzling hot oil together, and still others skip the stove, opting to bake the dish instead. Julia Child preferred a little of each – stovetop cooking in layers and then baking the dish like a casserole.
If you're looking for a recipe that is simple without sacrificing flavor for convenience, you might like one I happened to stumble upon. It's from "Chocolate & Zucchini," a delightfully written and carefully researched food blog that is one of my favorites. It seems a little tongue-in-cheek when Clotilde Dusoulier, the site's founder and only voice, calls her take on this dish "Ratatouille Confite au Four," (see recipe) for it is hardly as hoity-toity as its name.