Ratatouille It To Me
As I stood over a billion chopped summer vegetables in my galley kitchen, I realized that I never try to recreate restaurant food I have eaten. That is not to say restaurant food does not influence my cooking, or that I never make something that appears on restaurant menus, I just choose my recipes at home in a different fashion.
Every few weeks, I pour over cookbooks, food blogs, and culinary periodicals, and I look for recipes that sound tasty yet achievable. I also sometimes look specifically for recipes with a particular main ingredient. I like this process, because (a) I like to research just about anything, and (b) I like to imagine what food tastes like. I think I am pretty good at it. I read recipe names and ingredients and I “taste” it. If my mouth starts to water, it is go-time.
Now it is time for me to contradict everything I just wrote because of ratatouille.
Ratatouille is responsible for me standing over a billion chopped summer vegetables in my galley kitchen, pondering my method for selecting recipes; and not just any ratatouille. Ratatouille from Le Grainne Cafe.
I moved a couple months ago. I only moved about a half mile, but in Manhattan, a half mile means a whole new set of local businesses, including a new, conveniently located French cafe. I like to appoint a French or Belgian place for lunch in each neighborhood I frequent. My last local french place is called, Le Grainne Cafe, or as I call it, “French Place,” because I cannot seem to say, “Le Grainne.” (In the name of full disclosure, I also call Petit Abeille, “The Little Bee.” My two most frequent lunch companions speak French and I find the whole ordeal terribly embarrassing.)
Le Grainne has the most divine ratatouille. It makes me extraordinarily happy. I would order salads with ratatouille, crepes with ratatouille, omelets with ratatouille and in the case of ordering soup, I would order a side of ratatouille. The staff at Le Grainne would bring me my humble looking stew, and then, as if we were actually in France, they would leave me alone to enjoy my meal in peace. The staff never came over and tried to whisk away my plate. Instead they let their customers linger forever, affording me ample time to practically lick my plate clean.
Now that I have moved further downtown, I have a new French place that does not serve ratatouille. (However, it does have the best curry chicken salad sandwich I have ever had.) I think about Le Grainne’s ratatouille and how I would like to have it, or something similar, at home. I have looked for recipes to make Le Grainne-esque ratatouille at home, but none sounds quite right. Texture in this case is super important. Each vegetable needs to be cooked just right. I despise rubbery eggplant or liquified zucchini. I want my garlic soft and not scorched, and I like my onions sweet.
I am currently reading Molly Wizenberg‘s, A Homemade Life. I recently arrived at the chapter entitled, “Heaven.” “Heaven” recounts Wizenberg’s experience of spending her early twenties living in Paris, learning to enjoy cooking for one, and appreciating the “affirmation” of eating alone – something I wholly support. I fully identify with her enjoyment of fancy cheeses, her experience as an only child, and her personal passion for the occasional meal alone. But what got me really excited was the following:
My method for ratatouille, though, is different from either of my parents’. I like to cook the vegetables separately at first, so that each is perfectly cooked on its own, and then combine them at the end.
“What, what, what?!” I exclaimed. Then I turned the page to discover Wizenberg’s recipe for ratatouille. Hurrah!
Despite the fact that I was planning for a dinner party the next day, I hurried up and procured the ingredients for Wizenberg’s ratatouille because I wanted it as soon as possible, yet it is best to cook it at least a day in advance.
As soon as I was afforded the opportunity, I spent a little while in the kitchen making ratatouille. I stayed pretty true to the Wizenberg’s recipe, except I added a bit more salt and a few turns of the pepper mill. I knew it would not be exactly the same as Le Grainne’s – Le Grainne’s is made with rosemary and Wizenberg’s calls for thyme – but I just knew it would be my new go to ratatouille and the experience would be blog worthy.
Tonight I finally sat down with my ratatouille – my cousin joined me in my ratatouille-fest. I was so very excited all day. In anticipation of eggs for dinner (Wizenberg suggests a fried or poached egg on top), I had pasta for breakfast. Although I was not at Le Grainne, nor was I dining alone (I topped that by dining with my family), I really enjoyed my bowl of perfectly textured and wonderfully flavored ratatouille. I may try it with rosemary next time, and I will make my egg on top runnier, but I would like to thank Molly Wizenberg. I have found my new, go to ratatouille.
Roasted Eggplant Ratatouille
from Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes From My Kitchen Table
- 1 pound eggplant, sliced crosswise into 1-inch-thick rounds
- Olive oil
- 1 pound zucchini, trimmed, halved lengthwise, and sliced into 1/2-inch-thick half moons
- 1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
- 1 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and chopped
- 4 large cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
- 5 Roma tomatoes, seeded and chopped
- 3/4 teaspoon of salt
- 3 springs fresh thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/4 cup finely chopped basil
Position a rack in the middle of the oven, and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Arrange the eggplant rounds in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Pour 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a small bowl, and brush onto the eggplant. Flip the slices and brush the second sides as well, taking care that each has a thin coating of oil. Bake for 30 minutes, flipping the slices halfway through, until soft and lightly browned on each side. Remove from the oven and cool. Cut into rough 1-inch pieces. Set aside. (You can do this a day or two ahead, refrigerating the eggplant until you’re ready to use it. It’ll make the final dish a little quicker to prepare.)
Warm 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat in a Dutch oven or large, deep skillet. Add the zucchini and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden and just tender, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove it from the pan, taking care to leave behind any excess oil, and set it aside.
If there is no oil left in the pan, add about 1 tablespoon; if there is still some remaining, proceed to the next step. Reduce the heat to medium, and add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly softened, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the bell pepper and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until just tender but not browned, about 6 minutes. Add the tomatoes, salt, thyme, and bay leaf and stir to combine. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook for 5 minutes. Add the eggplant and zucchini, stir to incorporate, and cook until everything is very tender, 15 or 20 minutes more. Taste, and adjust the seasonings as necessary. Discard the bay leaf, and stir in the basil.
Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature, with additional salt for sprinkling.
Note: Ratatouille is even better on the second day or the third. If you can, plan to make it ahead of time, so that the flavors have time to meld and ripen.
Yield: 4 servings.