Friday, July 13, 2007
Living in the home of ratatouille, this is not a recipe that I take lightly. I make it only in the height of summer with eggplant whose skin is as flawless as a baby's, tomatoes that have basked luxuriantly in the sun, pale green zucchini so fresh that their yellow flowers are still open, and peppers whose skin gleams red or yellow.
The US release of the Disney film Ratatouille - which comes to French theaters on August 1st - smack in the middle of ratatouille season has brought this dish to the forefront of my mind. Writing an article for Agence France-Presse on the origins of this humble stew gave me an excuse to delve into my Provençal cookbooks, have a food chat with Franck Cerutti and eat dinner at the quirky Niçois bistro La Merenda, where I always take my visiting foodie friends (even if they do kick us out rather unceremoniously to make room for the next sitting).
The name, in case you're wondering, comes from the French word touiller, meaning to stir. According to the Larousse Gastronomique ratatouille once referred to "an unappetizing stew," which is exactly what happens when ratatouille is assembled hastily and cooked for too long. It's unlikely ever to taste bad if you make it with summer vegetables, but the better Provençal cooks aim for clarity in this dish, with each vegetable preserving its taste, color and texture.
I long resisted buying Jacques Médecin's cookbook because he was one of Nice's most corrupt mayors ever (and that's saying a lot), but I eventually had to admit that he could be relied on for good recipes if not wise politics. In Cuisine Niçoise: Recipes from a Mediterranean Kitchen, he advises using 1.5 kg (3 lbs 5 oz) tomatoes to 1 kg (2 lbs 4 oz) of each of the other vegetables, and here he hits upon one of the great truths about ratatouille: tomato is the main ingredient. Not that the vegetables should be drowning in tomato sauce, but there should be enough tomato to bind it all together effortlessly.
You might think that the chef of the Louis XV in Monaco would be above peasant cooking but nothing makes Franck more excited than the food of his childhood on a farm in the mountains above Nice. In an ideal ratatouille, he says, each vegetable would be cooked separately in olive oil and drained of any excess fat in a colander before joining the tomatoes in a pot. "I like it when it's served at room temperature, not hot or chilled. That might even be the best way to eat it. I also like to reheat ratatouille and poach eggs in the mixture."
Typically, his restaurant take on ratatouille involves lobster and only the most colorful parts of each vegetable, which are arranged into beautiful stripes.
Perhaps most intriguingly of all, Franck said that Niçois cooks prefer yellow peppers to green or even red because they are sweeter and not as strong. If these peppers happen to come from Piedmont, so much the better.
My ratatouille research wouldn't have been complete without a visit to La Merenda, where former Negresco chef Dominic Le Stanc seems to have found the ultimate recipe for every Niçois dish. Presented on a plain white plate, his ratatouille is surprisingly garlicky - my friend Louisa and I concluded that he added chopped garlic towards the end of the cooking time. I also noted that he hadn't bothered to peel the tomatoes, which will come as good news to lazy cooks.
Slightly intimidated by all this knowledge, I set about fine-tuning my own version of ratatouille. I've always liked to cut the vegetables very small, which allows me to use ratatouille not just as a side dish but as a stuffing for zucchini flowers or vegetables. By remembering the tomato-as-main-ingredient principle, substituting yellow peppers for green and adding some chopped garlic at the end of the cooking time, I took my recipe to a new level. I don't drain off the oil, but use the minimum I need to cook each vegetable, drizzling my best Baux de Provence olive oil over top when I serve the ratatouille.
Recognize the little squash in the picture? It's the mysterious vegetable that Pierre was holding the other day.
Courgettes rondes farcies à la ratatouille
(Round zucchini stuffed with ratatouille)
Serves 6 as a starter
6 small round zucchini
1 yellow pepper
1/2 large red pepper
1 small eggplant
2 medium zucchini
1 large shallot
2 sprigs thyme, leaves only
1 small dried chili pepper
1-2 cloves garlic
5 or 6 sprigs basil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add a teaspoon of salt and plunge the zucchini into the water. Boil for 10 mins, until they are lightly cooked but still firm.
Cut the top off each zucchini and hollow out the inside, discarding the pulp or saving it for another purpose.
Cut the yellow and red peppers, eggplant and zucchini into very small dice and sweat them one at a time on medium heat with a little salt in about 1 tbsp olive oil for each different type of vegetable (a little more for the eggplant, which should be cooked on medium-high heat). When the vegetables start to soften, set them aside in a large bowl (they can be combined at this point).
Meanwhile, peel the tomatoes. I use my Zyliss tomato peeler but you can also dip them in boiling water for a few seconds. Cut the tomatoes in half and squeeze out the seeds, then chop them finely. Finely mince the shallots and garlic.
Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a sauté pan, sweat the shallots over medium heat for 2 minutes and add the tomatoes, thyme and whole chili pepper. Cook for 15-20 minutes or until the sauce is starting to thicken. Add all the vegetables, chopped garlic and slivered basil and stew gently for 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Let the mixture cool and, using a small spoon, stuff the zucchini and place them on a baking tray. Drizzle with a little olive oil. Bake for 15 mins at 375 F (180 C), until heated through. Serve warm or at room temperature to best appreciate the flavors.