Ah, la ratatouille!!! Just saying those three syllables is a poem by itself and brings up memories of Jean Giono or Marcel Pagnol’s novels… much more, as far as I am concerned, than a cartoon by the Disney studios. Sorry little rat! Ratatouille… I feel the sun caressing my skin, I hear the cicada singing, I smell all the perfumes and aromas from Provence, and I crave the chilled rosé wine shimmering in my glass…
Obviously, there is not one and unique recipe for the ratatouille. There are different ways of cooking it, together, separate, hybrid… There are some flexibility on the ingredients (zucchini, yellow squash, patty pan…). There are a number of options regarding their colors (white, yellow… see below)…
I am not from Provence, and nobody in my family was, although some uncle and cousin of mine eventually emigrated to Marseille or Aix-en-Provence. I had neither ratatouille nor pastis (well, who knows?), in my baby bottle, but as long as I can remember, I have always loved those two, yes, two, the ratatouille and the pastis. Some day, I might tell a story about my ‘addiction’ to pastis when I was a kid. To come back to the ratatouille, since this is the topic, this is a dish that I could talk about for hours. In fact, this is one of the first two dishes that got me into cooking, the other one being ‘patates au lard,’ i.e. potatoes cooked with bacon, but this is again another story. My mother gave me the basics. Then I developed and improved my personal method, replicated or created some (23) variations of ratatouilles, without forgetting its cousins, the tian and the piperade. As I mentioned it, I could talk about it for hours. I could also write a 200+ page booklet praising its merits and exploring its immense possibilities… And since it happened that we had beautiful home- or locally-grown summer vegetables of different species, shapes and colors, ratatouille has become like a game. A challenge. An addiction? Is it serious, doctor?
That said, if I was asked to cook a ratatouille for my last meal on earth, here is what I would do… given that, of course, my last meal could not but be a ratatouille! Here is my ideal ratatouille recipe (till the next one?) compiling and combining all the compulsory details, valuable tips and personal twists to make a great ratatouille. And remember: the big thing is the liquidity mamagement!
For 6 persons as a side dish or 4 persons as a main dish
•1 medium size red onion
•2 medium size eggplants
•1 medium size zucchini and 1 medium size yellow squash
•1 green and 1 red bell pepper
•1 big beef tomato (for the texture) and 4 small heirloom tomatoes (for the taste)
•3 or 4 cloves of garlic
•Fresh herbs (see below)
•Piment d’Espelette (or hot pepper)
•Olive oil (~1/2 cup)
•½ cup of rosé wine
In this case, all the vegetables are locally grown ad bought at a farmers’market.
The ratatouille is often referred to as its “basic” vegetables: eggplant, zucchini, bell pepper, tomatoes. But many other ingredients are involved, onion, garlic, olive oil… and of course, herbs. Those are an essential component of ratatouille. There is no good ratatouille without those sun-heated flavors. It is strongly advised to use fresh herbs. Here: thyme, basil, sage, bay leaves… But, of course, rosemary, oregano/marjoram, savory… could be added too, depending on your tastes… and availabilities. The herbs are held together with 2 chive stems, replacing the usual cooking twines that will, of course, do the job, i.e. allow you to remove the herbs without having to fish for any part of them…
Preparing the eggplant and zucchini
Beyond a certain size, it is recommended to remove the central seed parts of zucchini and eggplant. On top of being, obviously, studded with seeds, those parts have a spongy texture and are not, honestly speaking, very interesting taste-wise. The other advantage is aesthetical: doing so, you increase the ratio between the colorful skin parts and the white inside parts.
Unlike what some recipes invite you to do:
• Don’t peel, fully or partially, the eggplant and the zucchini. First of all, a lot of tastes lie in the skin, including the (very relative) bitterness of the eggplant skin that is useful to counterbalance the sweetness of the pulp. I mentioned above the visual interest of the aubergine, green and/or yellow skins, but those skins are also interesting for the texture as they avoid the pulp disaggregation.
• Don’t toss eggplant and zucchini with salt to disgorge them and eliminate the vegetation water. Because if you do so, you would need to rinse them under… water and/or to squeeze them to expel water, which fragilizes their texture. I use other process to eliminate this water.
The vegetable cut
There is no rule. You can either cut the vegetables (including the onions) in dices, slices, sticks, or (almost) any other shape you could think of. The only thing is that the shape you choose will have an influence on the texture of your veggies and on the structure/presentation of your dish. For instance, if you make sticks, you can build up your ratatouille vertically, like a bonfire, while slices, specifically thin ones, will melt, like Dali’s watches, on the plate and in mouth. Personally, I like to cut them in dices, those being easy to stack together and easy to eat.
Also, when they are cut, salt them, moderately only. This will help eliminating some the vegetation water as soon as you cook them.
I chose to use the separate method. But this is by far not the most important thing. This just implies to use two dishes, a large frying pan to pre-cook separately the vegetables, one after the other, before transferring them in a cast iron stewing pot. Subject to particular tuning, the pan will be over medium/high burner (#6/7) and the pot over medium/low (#3). However, in case you don’t want or aren’t able to use a frying pan and a stewing pan, the together method will do the job without any problem, providing you add the vegetables one after the other, respecting the order below and a certain time (5 to 10 minutes) before adding the next vegetable layer (see rules #3 and #4).
First on stage: Onion
Cut in dices, salted (it will eliminate some of its vegetation water), and cooked directly in the stewing pot with a tbsp. of olive oil. The pot is over medium/low (2/3), and it will stay like for the rest of cooking, except fine tuning. It shall become translucent and not get colored. This is at this stage that I add the bouquet garni (the herbs) on top of the onion layer. They will flavor the whole dish without being directly exposed to the highest spot, the pot bottom. Even though the temperature is very moderate.
Cooking the eggplant
Cooking correctly eggplant is one key of the success of ratatouille. This vegetable is a true blotter, absorbing indifferently cooking oil or other vegetable rendered water. It also contain its own water. As mentioned above, the eggplant was seeded, cut in dices and moderately salted.
I sear it in the frying pan in two phases:
First, sear it rapidly over medium/high burner (#6/7) in a little bit of olive oil (~1 tbsp.), to rapidly eliminate part of the vegetation water;
Then, adding a generous quantity of oil (~6 tbsp.), continue searing it over medium burner (#5). The eggplant dices will absorb the oil and start taking a nice golden color, before rejecting part of that oil. This is when you know that the eggplant is ready to be transferred in the ratatouille pot. Normally, the oil eventually rendered by the eggplant should be in a sufficient quantity to gently sear the zucchini and, ultimately, the tomatoes. Once the eggplant is transferred in the pot, add the crushed garlic, roughly cut, and some piment d’Espelette.
Cooking the zucchini
It is up to the zucchini to be cooked in the pan, using the oil remaining after cooking the eggplant. Like the eggplant, the zucchini was previously seeded, cut in dices and moderately salted (once again, on top of seasoning, this helps to eliminate water). Sear it over medium/high burner (#6/7) till the zucchini and yellow squash dices take a nice golden color. Transfer them in the pot and add piment d’Espelette. One of “my seven rules” of ratatouille is to not stir the vegetables, or to hardly stir them. If you wish, I superpose layers of vegetables and let them interact together without any other human intervention. The problem of stirring up the vegetables is that you will eventually mash them. For instance at this stage, the eggplant dices have already cooked for 10 or 15 minutes. Their pulp starts to be soft and fragile. If you feel like mixing the vegetables together, just shake horizontally the pot on the stove, but don’t introduce a wooden or, worse, a metallic spoon.
Preparing the bell pepper
Before discussing the preparation, a little comment about the choice of bell peppers. I am the first one to use red, orange or yellow bell pepper. They bring a nice color to the dish. But their taste is sweeter, while the green bell pepper brings an interesting complementary bitterness. So, use them by pair, for instance one green pepper with, for instance, one yellow pepper half and one red pepper half, or any other similar combination. The bell pepper of my ideal ratatouille deserves a special treatment: Burn it with a kitchen torch. Then I keep it in an airtight plastic bag (such as a freezing bag) for around ½ hour, before brushing it or scraping it with a knife under tap water to remove the skin that might be difficult to digest. On top and above removing the skin, this burning process gives the bell pepper a very interesting smoky taste. Remove all the seeds and white “ribs” inside the bell pepper, as they brought bitterness, and cut it in dices. Add it directly to the pot without the pan stage (in case you don’t burn it, you need to sear it first).
Preparing the tomatoes
The tomatoes are full of water and, as such, they deserve a special treatment. When I have the time, and I obviously took it for my “ideal” ratatouille, I peel and seed the tomatoes. The pieces of tomato that generally detaches from the pulp when cooking are not pleasant to eat. And the fact to remove the watery seed parts will automatically limit the quantity of liquid rendered by tomatoes. To peel the tomatoes, I just plunge them for 1 minute in boiling water after having cross-cut them on the bottom, cool them down in cold water before very easily removing the skin with a knife or my fingers. To seed them, there is a little tip. Instead of cutting them length-wise, cut them width-wise, like on the picture. Then, you just need a teaspoon or coffee spoon to scoop out the seeded parts from those easy-to-access cavities. Cut the pulp in dices.
Cooking the tomatoes
Cook the seeded/peeled tomato dices in the pan, over medium/high burner, with the remaining oil. The fact that there is hardly any oil left is not a problem. You just want to further eliminate part of the important quantity of water still contained in the pulp and obtain a nice caramelization of the tomatoes with their own sugar. When you have obtained this caramelization, transfer the tomatoes in the pot. And this is where my personal twist intervenes. You don’t want to waste those fabulous flavors still in the pan: the seared eggplant and zucchini, and the caramelized tomato… So like you would do with a steak, deglaze the pan with a shot of wine (Rosé de Provence for instance), let reduce this tasteful juice, and transfer it into the pot.
And add a final touch of piment d’Espelette.
Simmering, phase #1
Now, you are almost done. You, not the ratatouille!
Once all the ingredients are put together, the ratatouille needs to gently simmer, like a stew, and ratatouille is a stew. Cook it in two phases.
First phase consists in simmering for around 60/90 minutes over medium/low burner (#3) with the lid on.
Honestly, during this phase, you have nothing to do, except checking once in a while that the ratatouille is gently bubbling and that it is not sticking on the bottom of the pot. Normally, it should not happen with the burner on #3, but it may depend on your stove. Also, when you check it, abstain yourself from stirring it up: you remember, just, possibly, a gentle horizontal shaking.
After those 60/90 minutes, let the ratatouille rest. Let it cool down, burner off, or out of the burner, in the corner of your stove, for a couple of hours, and/or, ideally (this is where you will obtain the best results) and if you have the time, overnight in the fridge, before starting phase #2.
Simmering, phase #2
Phase #2 consists in simmering the ratatouille for around 60 minutes. In fact, the objectives of this phase are three-fold: warming up, finalizing and “fixing” the flavors that have developed during the resting phase, and eliminating part of the oil/water juice rendered during the same phase. This is why, during this phase, you will play with the lid, lid on at the beginning (warming up) and lid off, as necessary, at the end to let the extra liquid evaporate.
During this phase, and once again without stirring, you will regularly baste the top tomato layer, either with a baster or with a tablespoon on the outside. You are ready for the final step, serving the ratatouille. For this, use a skimmer and/or a strainer to eliminate part of the remaining juice. But don’t pitch this juice, this is a nectar. Use it as a sauce for pasta, or as a base for salad dressing, for instance.
Enjoy my ideal ratatouille, here ornamented with edible flowers, fried sage leaves, fresh basil leaves, a roasted garlic clove, a pea shoot…