One of my favorite stalls at the farmers market is run by two young women who always have friendly greetings and interesting offerings. They have bunches of several varieties of basil along with many other herbs. Earlier in the season they had garlic scapes, fava beans, and a wide variety of Asian vegetables. They have bins and bins of tomatoes. But they also have an amazing selection of eggplants: not just the big purple tear drops that my grandmother grew but also white, variegated, Japanese, Italian, long, and green varieties. On my last visit I found eggplants that I had never seen. They were labeled as “Indian”, but their distinctive characteristic was that they were only about the size of a hen’s egg. They looked so cute that I bought them, although I wasn’t sure what I would do with them. You could stuff them with shrimp, Cajun-style, for individual servings. You could make an eggplant tapenade, but that would subvert the whole idea of miniature vegetables. I guess you could steam them and serve them by themselves. Of course, if you think of eggplant you think of ratatouille, so I bought some tomatoes, squash, peppers and onions as well.
I have long thought of ratatouille as a dish that is delicious but labor-intensive. That’s because the first time I ever prepared it years ago I followed Julia Child’s recipe exactly. Each vegetable was cooked separately and slowly to maintain its shape and color before combining with all of the other ingredients and then simmered gently to meld the flavors. In short, Julia’s version is not a dish that you start when you get home from work. The mystique has even been amplified by the wonderful Disney Pixar film, Ratatouille. In the movie, the signature dish prepared by the rat was an elaborate layering of slices of eggplant, squash, tomato and pepper. Beautiful to behold. And if you go to the web these days there are several versions of the recipe that use a similar artful arrangement of vegetables. Again, not something you would whip together before the evening news.
I think of a farm family sitting at their dinner table in Provence. I suspect they enjoy a good ratatouille but I doubt that it is in delicate layers. For that matter, a good shakshuka in Israel or bibimbap (add some beef and rice) in Korea may employ the same or similar ingredients without a lot of fanfare in their preparation. In other words, ratatouille should be easy to make and still be wonderfully delicious. This recipe just tosses the vegetables together, uses mushrooms, and adds a poached egg – definitely not authentic ratatouille, but a good way to use miniature Indian eggplants.
Salted zucchini rounds
Vegetable mix ready for braising
Not Exactly Ratatouille with poached eggs
Not Exactly Ratatouille
- 6 small Indian eggplants
- 2 small zucchini
- Kosher salt
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 6 small white onions
- 6 medium mushrooms
- 4 small ripe tomatoes (about 4-5 inches in diameter), halved
- 1 large green bell pepper, seeded and slice into ¼ inch thick rings
- 1 small can (8 ounces) tomato sauce
- ½ cup dry white wine (optional)
- ¼ teaspoon ground thyme to taste
- salt and pepper to taste
- 4 eggs, poached
- Trim the tops of the eggplants and slice them in half lengthwise. Do not peel. Slice zucchini in ¾ inch rounds. Sprinkle the cut vegetables generously with Kosher salt and place in a large sieve over a bowl for 30 minutes to draw out water, Blot dry with paper towels. Over a high flame, grill the vegetables for a few minutes until lightly browned with grill marks (if desired). Remove from the grill and set aside until ready for assembly.
- Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven or lidded oven-proof vessel over medium heat. Add the grilled eggplant and zucchini along with the onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, green pepper, tomato sauce, wine and seasonings.
- Cover the Dutch oven and transfer to the middle of an oven preheated to 300°F. Bake for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the vegetables are fragrant and tender. If there is too much liquid, remove the cover during the last 15 minutes of cooking to reduce. Adjust the seasoning and serve, topped with 2 poached eggs for each serving.
When I wrote recently about Julia Child’s recipe for ratatouille, I reported that she suggested serving it with pot au feu. I was looking for something simple, but the recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking served twelve to sixteen people and called for 4 pounds of beef, 4 pounds of pork, 4 pounds of chicken, 2 pounds of sausage, and vegetables. That was more than I wanted to tackle.
I had more in mind boiled beef, which sounded fairly simple and something that would not overpower the ratatouille. There is a traditional Creole dish, known as bouilli. It has been served for decades in most of the old-line restaurants of New Orleans. Perhaps the best known version is served at Tujague’s, which was established in 1856 and claims to be the second oldest restaurant in New Orleans. (The famous Antoine’s Restaurant dates to 1840.) Tujague’s sits on Decatur at the corner of Madison, a block from Jackson Square. Like the rest of the French Quarter, the restaurant survived Hurricane Katrina. It is still serving bouilli. I first enjoyed it in 1962. At the time, I thought it was pretty ordinary – stringy beef served in a watery broth. Since then, I guess my taste buds have matured, or at least changed. Bouilli was exactly what I was looking for to serve with ratatouille.
This is not Tujague’s authentic version of boiled beef. For one thing, theirs is made with brisket. I am also certain that they use some secret herbs and spices that I don’t know about. Still, I think that my version makes a good, if a bit bland, foil for the Mediterranean flavors of ratatouille.
Beef and vegetables in broth starting the slow boil
Bouilli with vegetables and ratatouille
Bouilli (Boiled Beef)
- 2 pounds beef pot roast (chuck or round)
- 1 quart beef stock
- water as needed
- 1 large carrot, peeled and cut in half crosswise
- 2 ribs celery cut in thirds
- 1 medium onion, peeled and quartered
- 2 medium turnips, peeled and quartered
- bouquet garni of whole cloves, parsley, bay leaf, fresh thyme, garlic
- 12 whole black peppercorns
- salt to taste
- Place beef in a soup pot and add broth and enough water to cover the meat.
- Add the remaining ingredients and bring to the boil. Cover and reduce to the simmer for 3 to 4 hours or until the beef is tender.
- Remove the beef rom the broth, slice, and serve with some of the broth and the vegetables, if desired. Serve horseradish on the side.
- Strain and reserve, chilled, remaining broth for other uses.
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.
Ratatouille still life
Add a leek
Ready to serve
Served with a slice of ham
- 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.
This will be my last post from Unscene Shreveport. Actually, I am already home, but I wanted to describe the final event for Sarah and Evan. Now, after two weeks of looking after a three-year-old and a three-month-old, my wife and I plan to rest.
On Saturday night, the Shreveport Municipal Auditorium became the focus of the food week. There was a small farmers market set up in the lobby, and fifteen local chefs joined Sarah and Evan to prepare an amazing array of dishes that were supposed to focus on the farm-to-table concept. Most, although not all, used products from the farmers market as the main ingredients in their foods.
As well, one local artist was assigned to each of the chefs to capture the food in images. Then there was music, bright lights, colored lights, and wine to establish a party atmosphere. And it was a party – about 600 people showed up.
The Municipal Auditorium is a classic Art Deco building that was completed in the late 1920s or early 1930s. For many years it served as the home of the Louisiana Hayride, a strong radio competitor with the Grand Ole Opry. Many of the greats of country music performed at the Hayride, including Hank Williams and even Elvis Presley. In fact, the street in front of the building has been renamed Elvis Presley Avenue. After the Hayride shuttered its doors, the auditorium fell on hard times. Paint peeled, plaster became loose, and windows got broken. Except for high school graduations, the space was on its way to becoming derelict. In recent years, however, the buildings around have been cleaned up or knocked down, and the Municipal Auditorium has had lots of love and care to restore it to its original grandeur.
Here is the menu for the evening:
- Sarah, Evan, and their Shreveport host, Chef Jason Brady served pork panzanella using the hog that they had butchered on Thursday.
- Chef Carolyn Manning of Blue served goat’s milk grits
- Chef Pansou served creole maux chow
- Chef Hardette Harris made a green garden salad
- Chef Charlie Reed from Superior’s Steakhouse prepared Toulouse beef striploin canapés, duck, and gravlax
- Chef Giuseppe Brucia of Giuseppe’s made cheese ravioli
- Chef Jason Reynolds of Zocolo prepared a chilled field pea salad
- Chef Tootie Morrison of Abby Singer’s Bistro served gumbo balls
- Chef Cedric Williams made chicken meatballs
- Chef Kevin Bourg from Wine Country Bistro had a refreshing chilled cucumber soup
- Tina Palmesano of Jester’s Catering served fresh shrimp tamales
- Chef Conrad Patterson provided individual pecan pies
- Chef Andrew Parsons of Lagniappe Foods made crostini topped with fig jam and pork liver paté
- Chef Eddie Mars from the Petroleum Club served pork cheek bahn day
- Chefs Lisa and TK Tike of Lilah’s made tres leches cake
- Chefs Scott Roebuck and Liz Bowen of Serendipity served veggie sliders
Sarah serving panzanella
Individual pecan pie
Part of the hungry crowd
After all of that, there was no reason that anyone should go away hungry, but there was one more opportunity for food. Sarah and Evan served their gourmet popcorn to those who wanted to stay for a showing of the movie, Ratatouille.