Friday, July 22, 2022

Ratatouille Revisited

About nine years ago, I posted about my first time making ratatouille, based Emeril's recipe. I've more or less winged it since then, after quickly checking that initial recipe for reference, achieving decent results several times and screwing up once or twice. (I remember one version being "death by thyme." But I was getting ready to move and I didn't want to have to pack fresh thyme, so ... anyway.)

Yesterday, I made a yummy version of ratatouille that was loaded with ingredients that aren't listed in the recipe. So, maybe it's not really ratatouille. Since it was just for me, I figured no one would judge me if I just put in what I wanted, and that was a lot of stuff. But now I'm telling the internet about it, so I guess I'll be judged after all. Whatever.

I went shopping for the ingredients on Wednesday and started prepping when I got home from work on Thursday. I was unsurprised (having done this before) that the prep took about an hour. I snacked a bit between tasks and while the dish was cooking, since dinner was coming up later than usual for me. And of course, I knew that I'd end up with enough food to feed six, or myself from Thursday through Tuesday, so it wasn't as if saving my appetite was crucial. Nevertheless, when I dug in, I found it pretty darn good.

Of course I got all (well, most) of the orthodox ingredients: a small eggplant, a yellow squash, a zucchini, four Roma tomatoes, a medium yellow onion, bell peppers (one each red, yellow and orange), a couple bulbs of garlic, and a bunch of ... oops. Here's where my brain farted, and I brought home a bunch of fresh rosemary instead of thyme. It's hard to reckon how I made that mistake. But I intentionally omitted the parsley and basil because I felt that the one herb would be plenty.

And then, I went a little mad and bought several things that aren't in ratatouille as it has been transmitted down to me. I figured where you have onions in French cookery, you may as well also have carrots and celery. And on a lark, I also bought some mushrooms that I imagined would be close to eggplant in consistency. That made for a good deal more prep work, though, and by the time I got around to them, I was too sick of chopping to give them due care and ended up cutting them up into bigger chunks than I really should have. And of course, I seasoned everything with salt.

While I'm dwelling on should-have beens, I also wish I had redesigned my mise en place. Going by memory of the Emeril recipe, I divided the chopped ingredients into four bowls, based on what stage of cooking I meant to throw them into the pan. If I recall correctly, Bowl 1 was the eggplant (peeled and chopped into roughly 2/3-inch cubes) and a couple of carrots (not peeled but cut in half lengthwise and then chopped into pieces of similar size). I now think I should have either julienned and more finely chopped the carrots or started them first, by themselves in a pan drizzled with hot olive oil. As it was, I couldn't give them the time they needed to soften without risking the eggplant dissolving into nothing.

Bowl 2, going in a few minutes later, was the onion and garlic. After the onion started to soften and the garlic released its aroma, I threw in Bowl 3, containing the pepper (I ended up chopping only the orange bell, pith and seeds removed), celery (three stalks, sliced in half lengthwise and then chopped to a similar size as the carrots), both kinds of squash (peel on, quartered lengthwise and cut into roughly similar cuboids), and the shrooms (sliced but not too thin). The lid went on the pan, except for the occasional stir.

When I started to worry about it being done before I had added Bowl 4, in went the tomatoes and the rosemary. I'd actually tried, for the first time, the "dip in boiling water for 10 seconds, then de-stem and peel" method before quartering the tomatoes and chopping them into about 1/3-inch dices. Of course, I de-stemmed the rosemary, about 3 branches worth, which I'm sure is quite conservative considering how much food I was adding it to, but I was mindful of "death by thyme" and chose the long way around to avoid repeating that type of mistake. In a more perfect univserse, I would have given more effort to the rosemary, but I was at the end of my resources by that time so I gave up after just a few feeble chops; I would only regret that a litte, later.

Stir. Lid on. A couple more stirs. At the last moment I remembered to grind some black pepper over the pan and to cut off a quarter of a large lemon and squeeze its juice in there. (I actually plated a serving of it before I remembered the lemon, so I had to shake a few drops of the juice onto that, too. I can scientifically say that a little lemon juice really is essential.)

And then I ate. Despite being meatless and untouched by such animal products as butter, cream, cheese, broth or stock, it turned out to be a thick, chunky, savory stew with just the right amount of herb flavor (not death, but life by rosemary); exactly enough salt (if not, in a few bites, just a shade too much – and all that was from the prep stage); a good chew on the mushrooms, yellow squash and zucchini; and some tender, bursting-with-flavor morsels of orange bell pepper and celery. Also, the dish was a feast for the eyes, full of bright colors; and speaking of brightness, that squeeze of lemon brought a welcome shine to the top end of the dish, like a soprano note that lightens an otherwise muddy chord.

Regrets, I had a few – but they weren't big ones. The eggplant pieces were softer than I wished, but they hadn't completely mushed out, so I guess that was half a win. Like I said, next time they'll go into the bowl with the squash, and let the carrots hang out by themselves in Bowl 1. The onions and garlic lent flavor, but they pretty much disappeared in the texture – which I guess is fine where garlic is concerned (and may I also mention, I have yet to perfect my garlic peeling technique; that leg of my prep marathon was the slowest and most miserable). But I kind of missed sinking my teeth into the onion pieces; so, maybe Bowl 2 and Bowl 3 should go in at the same time, another day. I definitely need a separate bowl, however, since most of my mise en place bowls are plastic and I didn't fancy washing garlic and onion funk out of a plastic bowl; ceramic for that one.

My final quibble: as I mentioned before, I should have remembered thyme, rather than rosemary; perhaps that would have lent more success to my herb-chopping efforts, such as they were. As it is, the last few bites of my dinner came with big chunks of rosemary that stayed in my mouth no matter how much I chewed, and I had to spit into the kitchen trash multiple times to get them out. Another alternative might be just to throw whole branches of the herb (or herbs) into the stew and fish them out when cooking was over and their purpose was served. A next time there will be, however; just not very soon, because I still have two multi-serving containers of leftovers from this batch cooling in the fridge.

Last word: Prep may have been a pain, but cleanup really wasn't that bad. I used three nesting bowls for the mise en place, plus a ceramic soup mug for the onions and garlic; one wooden cutting board for everything, which fit nicely over one side of the sink so I didn't have to clear counter space for it; a big, heavy, hardened-nonstick pan and its lid for the stewing; a medium-small saucepan for the 10-second boil on those tomatoes, along with a wire scoop to fish them out of the water; one big chopping knife for almost everything; and a paring knife for just a couple things (like de-stemming the tomatoes and peeling the eggplant). Somehow, a wire-mesh strainer got dirtied, though I can't now remember what I needed it for. And a dinner plate.

The star of my armaments was an old, hard-plastic spoon with a metal handle and a hard-plastic grip, which I rescued from my old office when it was being packed up and moved to a new location that doesn't have a kitchen; the kind of thing you can't seem to get anymore, but that ran circles around the bendy plastic stirring spoons, spatulas, etc. that fill most of my kitchen counter tool jug. I used it throughout the preparation of this dish, from stirring the stew to plating to scooping the leftovers into to-go (into the fridge) containers. This is the kitchen tool I've wanted for years and it finally takes a rushed, office-moving, disposing-of-used-kitchen-junk party to bring it to hand. It's an ill wind that blows no good.

No comments: