When our grandchildren visit us they often wind up watching our DVD of the Disney-Pixar movie, Ratatouille. Sometimes the grownups watch, too. It’s a charming story, and besides who doesn’t enjoy the fantasy of a rat winning three Michelin stars in a previously failing Paris restaurant? Even though it is a cartoon, the ratatouille served in the picture is a work of art. My friend, Jim Hastings, has tried to re-create it, and if you google images of ratatouille you will find that a lot of other folks have also created things of beauty.
Not me. I have relied on Julia Child’s recipe for over forty years. Even though it is an appealing dish, it is no competition for the rat’s over-the-top composition.
This is clearly the time of year for ratatouille. The essential ingredients are all at their peak. The fresh vegetables are where the real beauty of the dish lies. Eggplants (aka aubergine in the UK and brinjal in India) are displayed in a mosaic of colors and shapes. There are the traditional dark purple giants and the slender variegated Japanese varieties. I chose some cream and purple striped globes that were just the right size for cooking without peeling. As for tomatoes, if you are not lucky enough to have your own backyard supply, the farmers market is brimming with them, along with zucchini of just the right size, bell peppers, and beautiful onions.
Everyone knows how versatile tomatoes, zucchini, and bell peppers are. Most home cooks have pages and pages of recipes for them. Eggplant is also versatile, but many cooks don’t seem to know that. My grandmother grew her own eggplants, but she only did one thing with them. She cut them is slices, unpeeled. Dipped them in egg and flour and fried them . They were delicious, but they could get to be boring. In Louisiana, eggplants et stuffed with spicy seafood. A memorable dinner from years ago featured eggplant casings stuffed with shrimp and served as a beautiful turban mold. . Our host struggled over that for hours. Eggplant instead of pasta in lasagna is common, and eggplant Parmigiano is a classic. Chef Brucia in Shreveport did a delicious variation with eggplant rounds topped with chicken breast supremes, tomato sauce and Parmigiano and then baked.
With all of that, my favorite way to cook eggplant remains Julia Child’s ratatouille. I won’t repeat her recipe. You can find it in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I, page 503. I will add a few cooking tips that I have learned. Just be advised that although it is not difficult to make, ratatouille is time-consuming. Don’t try to make it at the last minute. After you’ve made it, you have to decide how to serve it. It is good enough to stand on its own, but Julia suggests pot au feu if you want to go to all that trouble. I served it with a slice of ham, and was a combination to my liking.
- There’s no need to peel and cut the eggplant into strips, as cooking will soften the peel, and slices will hold their shape better.
- Cut a little cross in the ends of the tomatoes before you blanch them. They will peel more easily.
- Avoid oversized zucchini as they will wind up being waterlogged.
- The new “snacking peppers” – red, yellow, orange – make a good substitute for green bell peppers.
- Leeks make a good substitute for onions.
- Use good olive oil for the essence of Provence.
- As Julia Child suggests, letting the dish sit overnight seems to improve the flavor.