Thursday, April 18, 2013

My First Ratatouille

For years, I have drooled over the traditional French veggie hotdish known as ratatouille, made famous by the movie of the same name. But I never had a chance to taste it until I made it for myself. Which I did just this evening.

Emeril's Ratatouille
Going in, I knew that the dish presented in the movie was not authentic ratatouille, but an original gourmet art work cooked up by one of the movie's culinary consultants. While that looks good, it also looks like a lot more work than the traditional recipe with rough-cut vegetables jumbled together in a bubbling pot.

The recipe I ended up following, when it came time to do the actual cooking, was the one featured on Emeril Lagasse's cooking show and published online. Unfortunately, I didn't consult Emeril until after I had assembled the ingredients, by which time I had neither time nor money to go back to the supermarket and correct my purchasing mistakes. So I had to cut a few corners, and the end result probably was not very similar to what Emeril envisioned. Nevertheless, I thought it was good, and I look forward to trying it again.

Now, wouldn't it be nice if recipes actually told you everything you needed to do, in the order you needed to do it? And I mean, starting at the grocery store, when you are trying to assemble the ingredients for a planned meal! To be sure, having the recipe with you at the store would also help. But it would cut through a lot of reading, re-reading, painfully construing, re-ordering of priorities, scribbling, squinting at your scribbles, and swearing venomously when you realize that you've skipped a step that the author of the recipe felt was implied by the string of adjectives embedded in each item of the list of ingredients, and in the past-participles sprinkled among his helpful instructions. Would it kill him to put the steps in order, so that even an idiot like me might get it right in one try?

So here's my memo to myself for the next time I do a ratatouille. Then, perhaps, I will be able to taste what the dish is really like, without a can or two of Ro-Tel covering up the horror of not having as much bell pepper as I thought I did, or pre-soaked dried onion flakes filling in for the onion (which I had used up cooking that runza the other day).

First, the shopping. As you approach your grocery store's produce department, bear in mind that for this dish to be at its best, you will need:
  • 1 or 2 yellow onions
  • 1 average-sized eggplant
  • 1 good-sized zucchini (or 2 dinky ones)
  • 2 yellow squash (because, face it, they're all dinky)
  • 6 or 8 roma tomatoes
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 1 green bell pepper
  • a bulb of garlic or a jar of minced garlic (unless you still have some at home)
  • thyme, basil, parsley, black pepper, olive oil, and salt (if you're running low at home, or feel like troubling with the fresh herbs)
Don't forget any of these things, and if you're planning another dish using any of them, buy extra!

Second, the chopping. Don't bother starting unless (until) you have a clean cutting board, a big sharp knife, a good-sized pot with a lid, and a big cooking spoon to stir with. Rinse off the veggies in lukewarm water and shave off any patches of skin that you have doubts about. Cut off the ends of the eggplant, zucchini, and squash. Slice each in half lengthwise (maybe thirds in the eggplant's case), roll the fruit 90 degrees and repeat; then them chop into mouthful-sized chunks with the skins still on. Cut the stems out of the peppers at both ends; open them up and remove all the seeds and flaky kid stuff; then slice them into long strips the width of your choice, before cutting these strips to the length of your choice. Then slice up the tomatoes (which only need one lengthwise cut beforehand), the onions (probably best if diced more finely), and the clove of garlic (hacked into tiny bits, if using fresh). Set aside the chopped pieces of each fruit or veg in a separate dish. If using the fresh herbs, shred them by hand; or make sure the shakers are handy.

Third, the cooking. This is a nice, friendly dish, in that (per Emeril's advice), you can cook it in 5-minute fits, setting the same timer over and over, and getting everything done on schedule. And you don't have to do much except remember what order to add stuff, stir 2 or 3 times within five minutes, and cover the pot in between stirrings. So, after you warm up about a quarter-cup of the oil on medium heat...
  1. Add the garlic and onion to the pot; sizzle and stir for 5 aromatic minutes.
  2. Add the eggplant and thyme (half a teaspoonful); cook for 5 minutes.
  3. Add the peppers, zucchini, and squash; cook for 5 minutes.
  4. Add the tomatoes, basil and parsley (one teaspoon each), salt and black pepper (use your own judgment); cook for 5 minutes.
And presto! You've got a ratatouille!

Some of the other recipes I've seen around call for some extra flavorings, such as a bit of vinegar and/or some anchovies. I happen to have some anchovy paste around, so I might try that option next time—probably adding it at the onion-and-garlic stage.

As for me, tonight, I had a ratatouille, made essentially as described above. Except, you know, with zombie onions and 2 cans of Ro-Tel. I did have some fresh onion and red & green bell pepper, but (as I learned too late) only enough to make a plate of fajitas with—not nearly as much as Emeril's recipe called for. I used them too, dumping them in as they were (i.e., in fajita-friendly strips), at the pepper/squash stage. They didn't cook as well as I would have liked, and together with the excessive spiciness of the Ro-Tel, they turned out to be the least enjoyable part of the dish.

But it was, over all, delicious—a different blend of flavors in each bite, a highlight of eggplant here (and I lurve eggplant), a note of fresh tomato there (which, to me, represents what sunshine tastes like), plenty of herb tangs and onion twangs, and firm pieces of vegetable that I could really feel when I sank my teeth into them. I most definitely will be trying this dish again. And I don't just mean the three 18-ounce tubs of leftovers that I put up in the fridge. Ratatouille, I shall return! And I'm taking this memo with me when I shop for your ingredients!

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