I cut veggies in big chunks for this great summer or fall dish – a perfect marriage of taste and texture.
“The secret of a good ratatouille is to cook the vegetables separately so each will taste truly of itself.” — Joel Robuchon
I relish these wise words from one of the most renowned chefs in the world. And I humbly endorse them.
As a food sleuth, I am in seriously into secrets when it comes to perfecting a recipe.
Some examples. My rule about applesauce: Do NOT add liquid, as many recipes recommend. DO bake the fruit in the oven pretty well au naturel (maybe a light sprinkling of cinnamon and perhaps a little sugar and/or lemon juice depending on the apples) at 350F for about an hour or just until they can be mashed with a fork.
When making gravy for roast meat, add a little Madeira and/or blackcurrant jelly at the end for that certain je ne sais quoi.
Two tips from kindly chef friends: Add a spoonful of frozen orange juice concentrate to your oil/vinegar mixture for vinaigrette. And mash your Bolognese Sauce during cooking to get rid of lumps.
I am also a fan of another famous chef’s sage advice. Speaking to an audience in Toronto a couple of years ago, California-based restaurateur Thomas Keller had people eating out of his hand. His credo to us: “Practice, practice, practice.”
Which brings me back to Ratatouille – a delicious Provencal dish I perfected some years ago after scouring the ‘Net and rifling through several favourite cookbooks, then making it over and over until I got it right.
I discovered there are two stages to preparing the ultimate Ratatouille: 1) Cooking each vegetable separately (as per Robuchon’s advice), then 2) Transferring them all to an ovenproof dish (I like to use an earthenware one with a lid) and baking the colourful, flavour-laden concoction briefly in the oven.
You can choose from three methods for the first stage – searing each vegetable separately in batches in a skillet (my preferred modus operandi), roasting in the oven or grilling them on the barbecue.
After some experimenting, I found that good-size chunks of each vegetable work better than small ones. I also like to toss each vegetable with oil, salt and pepper in a large bowl before adding to the skillet.
And here’s the key trick gleaned from my sleuthing. When transferring the browned vegetables to an ovenproof dish, add the tomatoes (cooked with the onions) LAST so their juices drip down through the Ratatouille as it bakes.
This is one of my all-time favourite dishes. It’s versatile, makes use of the local, seasonal harvest and can be served to vegans and vegetarians in its basic rendition.
There are many tasty tweaks and twists on the basic theme.
You can crumble goat cheese on top of the finished Ratatouille and quickly slip it under the broiler until browned just before serving. Add tofu chunks and you have a meatless meal.
Ratatouille works as a side dish or main course and can be used as a sauce for pasta. Serve it hot, at room temperature or cold. Chop it up with some black olives and/or capers and you’ve got a topping for bruschetta.
Omit the eggplant and zucchini and – hey presto – there’s another delicious dish: Peperonata.
I must give a nod to pop culture in the shape of that terrific film Ratatouille. For this, chef Keller contributed a version of ratatouille called Biyaldi – a more elaborate creation that involves fanning out the elegantly sliced veggies for a stellar presentation.
Ratatouille is even better the next day when the gorgeous flavours have had time to meld and mellow. It is absolutely best made in mid- to late summer and early fall when all the vegetables are at their peak.
Please use this recipe as a guide and feel free to vary it as desired.
I vary the veggies according to season and use ripe fresh tomatoes in summer (cherry and grape tomatoes will also work well), canned ones in winter. By “big chunks” I mean about 1½-inch/2 cm in size – don’t go smaller or the veggies will go mushy.
To peel and seed tomatoes (a nice touch), place in large saucepan of boiling water about 10 seconds. Transfer to bowl of cold water, peel off skins and discard. Squeeze out seeds. Chop tomato flesh. You can substitute a 28-oz/796 mL can of tomatoes for fresh.
About 1/3 cup olive oil
1 medium eggplant, cut in big chunks
3 medium zucchini, cut in big chunks
1 or 2 sweet red peppers, cut in big pieces
1 or 2 sweet yellow peppers, cut in big pieces
2 medium red onions, peeled, cut in chunks
2 tbsp chopped fresh thyme or 1 tbsp dried
6 garlic cloves, peeled
4 or 5 large ripe tomatoes, stem end removed, cut in chunks
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 350F.
Toss eggplant chunks with 1 to 2 tablespoons of oil (just enough to coat), salt and pepper in large bowl. Add to large heavy skillet over medium-high heat; cook, turning once or twice, until nicely browned on all sides but not soft, about 5 minutes. Transfer to ovenproof dish. Repeat with zucchini and peppers.
Heat remaining oil in skillet. Add onions, thyme and garlic. Cook, stirring, about 4 minutes or until softened and a bit caramelized. Add tomatoes; cook about 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add mixture to ovenproof dish. Do not stir.
Cover; bake in oven 20 minutes. Remove lid. Cook about 10 minutes more or until vegetables are tender but not mushy.
Serve warm, at room temperature or cold.
Makes about 6 servings.