Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Last of Summer's Bounty - Ratatouille

I have a friend who once told me I was the "King of Comfort Food".  At first I was insulted, but when I realized he was right I embraced the moniker.  I can't think of anything that offers me much more comfort than this wonderful dish from Provence.

Many years ago, my ex and I did a sort of "Julie Powell Light" and cooked our way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volumes I and II.  Unlike Julie, we didn't make all the recipes, just the ones that looked most appealing. I specifically remember an aspic recipe we skipped because it looked vile, but we definitely made ratatouille and I've been making it ever since.

This is probably going to be your last chance to make this classic using local ingredients from your farmer's market if you have one.  I've successfully made ratatouille in the dead of winter from vegetables that are grown in Mexico or in some artificial environment and it's good, but it's just not the same.

The first step is to prep all the vegetables.  Peel a globe eggplant (a serrated peeler from Oxxo works really well here) and cut it into bite-sized chunks between an inch and an inch and a half on a side.  If they look big, don't worry, the eggplant will shrink as it cooks, but the idea is to have the eggplant pieces roughly the same size as the squash slices.  Slice a couple of medium-sized summer squash in fairly thick slices and slice a medium onion and a medium bell pepper.  If you like you can use a mix of red, yellow, orange and green peppers.  It's up to you.  I used only a green one here just because it was what I had.  Finally, mince a couple cloves of garlic and peel and seed about 5 Roma tomatoes.

Note about tomatoes: 
To peel, either cut a shallow cross in the stem end and submerge them in boiling water for 15-20 seconds, or peel them with the serrated Oxxo peeler I mentioned above.  No, it really works!  Cut them in half crosswise and squeeze out the seeds, then roughly chop them.  You can make successful ratatouille with canned tomatoes but it's better with fresh, even in January when the Romas have wax on them.

Note about slicing onions:  This may seem elementary to some, but the best way to slice onions for a dish like this is to cut off the stem and root ends and cut the onion in half vertically. Then, with the flat side on your cutting board, simply cut from the outside of the onion to the center, going around in a semi-circle - sort of like spokes on a wheel.  You'll end up with slices that are mostly all the same size.

Put the eggplant and squash in separate colanders and salt them lightly. This will draw some of the water out of them and help them brown better.  After about 20 minutes, dry them off with paper towels and you're ready to go.

Preheat a skillet (I'm using a 12-inch Name Your Link from Calphalon here - it's their Tri-Ply Stainless line, which is a stainless/aluminum sandwich like All-Clad, but much less expensive).  When it comes to pans, pots and bowls, bigger is better to a point, so don't try to squeeze this dish into something that's too small, a mistake many home cooks make.  Then they wonder why they can't stir the pancake batter without getting flour all over the counter and the floor.

When the pan is hot, add about 3 tablespoons of olive oil and, when it's shimmering and almost smoking, add the eggplant.  Please resist the temptation to stir it immediately.  Give it a minute or so to brown a little, then toss it to brown on all sides.

Remove the eggplant from the pan when it's undercooked, and repeat the process with the squash.  If you need to do it in two batches, so be it, but don't pile it in the pan.  One note here.  Many people believe in simply putting all the ingredients in a pan together and simmering or baking the dish.  I firmly believe in this "layered" approach, where everything retains its identity for the most part.

Next, over lower heat, add the onions and peppers to the pan, season them with salt and pepper (watch the salt if you're using canned tomatoes which are loaded with salt) and "sweat" them until they begin to soften and the peppers have turned from bright green to a sort of dusky green.  At that point, add the garlic and cook, stirring, for a couple of minutes.  If your onions and peppers look like this they need to cook longer.

Finally, add the eggplant and squash and stir to combine.  Layer the tomatoes on top and add a few grinds of pepper and some fresh basil if you like.  I have more basil than I know what to do with, so I liked.

Cover the dish and simmer on top of the stove or in the oven for 15-20 minutes, basting it occasionally with the juices in the pan, until the vegetables are tender but not mushy.  Sprinkle it with a little minced parsley and correct the seasoning if necessary.  It will look like this.

The ratatouille can be served hot or at room temperature.  I kind of like it at room temperature or lukewarm.  It can be a dish unto itself with some good bread and as a side dish it's unparalleled with lamb - especially butterflied and grilled leg of lamb.


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