I have not always loved vegetables. I went to cooking school with the intention of becoming a pastry chef (I have always loved sweets) and it was as much of a surprise to me as it was to anyone who knew me that I ended up working on the savory side of the kitchen. Of course my change of heart towards vegetables was a gradual process that only began during my time in London. But as I look back on my stay there, I can pinpoint two seminal moments in my transformation. One of those moments involved a dish called ratatouille.
Ratatouille is a classic Provençal vegetable stew made of eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers and onions. When I started cooking school it would be fair to say that tomatoes—and onions if they were cooked long enough—were the only vegetables on that list that I liked well enough to prepare for myself. As for the other three, I would say that I tolerated peppers—but they were not something I would have gone out of my way to eat. Eggplant and zucchini on the other hand were not vegetables that I was willing to eat at all.
I believe I only had one experience with eggplant while growing up and it was not a good one. My mother, possibly in an attempt to stretch our food horizons—or maybe to satisfy her own desire to try something new and interesting for dinner—prepared a dish that featured eggplant. I have no memory of the dish other than my reaction. I was revolted. It is quite likely that the dish was pretty good, but for some reason I had a preconceived notion that eggplant was nasty. My thoughts on zucchini were similar....the only difference being that I had more experience of it. I remember that it appeared now and then on our table. And I have to say that there was one dish in particular—a canned concoction of zucchini stewed in tomato sauce—that was pretty awful.
With all of this in mind, imagine my dismay on one particular day at the Cordon Bleu as I looked over the recipes for the upcoming demonstration and saw ratatouille among them. I was old enough at that point to not let out an audible "blecchhh" (I'm sure I thought it). Instead, I quietly resigned myself to having to go out for lunch after class. Of course, this is not how things turned out.
As always, I was seated on the front row. As a person who's last name begins with "V" I had to sit at the back of the classroom all through grade school and high school. So when I got to college and then cooking school—where I got to choose my seat—I was always front and center. This put me in the perfect position, not only to see what was going on on top of the stove and on the cutting board, but also to catch the aromas as they came off of all of the tasty things sizzling and simmering away during class.
The ratatouille the chef was preparing that day was a traditional, rustic version. In this version the vegetables are simply added to the pan in succession as they are cut. First, the oil and onions are set to cook over a gentle heat. Next the eggplant and zucchini are cut, salted, rinsed and dried. These are then added to the pan where they begin to cook and soften while the tomatoes and peppers are cut. The final addition of vegetables is made along with some smashed garlic and a bundle of herbs. With each addition, the lid of the pan is lifted and a wave of fragrant steam comes out of the pan.
On that day, the first time the lid came off after all of the vegetables had been cooking for a while, I about fell out of my chair. I had never smelled anything like it. Since the lid had to come off several more times as the class continued—to give the stew a stir, check its progress and maybe stir in a touch more olive oil—by the time class was over, I couldn't wait to taste that stew. It did not disappoint. It was one of the best things I have ever put in my mouth. Rich with concentrated vegetable flavors and olive oil, it had the consistency of a thick jam. I have been in love with eggplant and zucchini ever since.
To this day, ratatouille is one of my favorite things to eat. From late summer into fall, I always try and take advantage of the season and make at least a batch or two of ratatouille. There is no one method for preparing this dish—it is the combination of ingredients that defines it. It can be prepared as a simple stew, like the one we had at the Cordon Bleu. But it can also be elaborately deconstructed and reconstructed like Thomas Keller's version—the one that was so elegantly animated in the movie Ratatouille. The version I make lies somewhere between these two. From the book Lulu's Provençal Table, it involves cooking each vegetable separately before combining them all for a long slow simmer. This method gives the soft texture and long-stewed, well-amalgamated flavor of the one I first tasted so long ago, but at the same time allows each vegetable to remain visually identifiable in the final dish. It is good on pasta, or with eggs,
as a vegetable side to grilled or roasted meats,
or on a crostini.
It is not glamorous... or particularly beautiful... but I love this dish.
About 2/3 c. olive oil
1 lb. onions, cut into ½-inch dice
1 lb. zucchini, cut into ¾-inch cubes
1 lb. eggplant, unpeeled and cut into ¾-inch cubes
6 cloves of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1 lb. tomatoes, peeled, seeded & cut into large chunks, juices reserved
3 large bell peppers, roasted, peeled, seeded (juices reserved) and cut into ½-inch squares
Several sprigs of fresh thyme
Salt & freshly ground pepper
In a large, heavy, wide pan, warm 3 T. of olive oil. Add the onions and cook covered over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions are very tender and are simmering in their own juices—this will take about 30 minutes. Uncover, increase the heat slightly, and cook until they begin to take on a light golden color.
While the onions cook, sauté the zucchini in a large frying pan until golden and beginning to be tender.
Set the zucchini aside and season lightly with salt. Repeat this process with the eggplant.
Do not overcrowd the frying pan or the zucchini & eggplant will steam and not caramelize. If necessary, do each vegetable in batches (just large enough to cover the bottom of the pan with a single layer of eggplant or zucchini). It is not necessary to clean the pan between batches—simply add more oil if necessary and then add the next batch. Be careful not to add too much oil—there should be just enough to lightly coat the bottom of the pan. Each batch will take about 5 minutes.
When the onions are ready, season with salt and add the garlic along with the eggplant and the zucchini.
Meanwhile, in the same frying pan used to sauté the eggplant and zucchini, sauté the tomatoes (adding more oil if necessary) over high heat—shaking and tossing constantly until the tomatoes are softened, but not disintegrating, and their liquid has reduced to a syrup.
Remove from the pan and set aside. Add the reserved tomato juices to the same pan and reduce until slightly thickened. (For late season tomatoes, which may not be as juicy as mid-summer tomatoes, the tomatoes and their juices can all be cooked at once rather than in two steps.)
To the pan of eggplant, zucchini & onions, add the tomatoes and tomato juices along with the peppers and their juices. Immerse the thyme in the vegetables and simmer the vegetables, stirring occasionally and being careful not to break the vegetables up too much, until the vegetables are tender and coated in a reduced, syrupy, vegetal liquid--about an hour to an hour and a half (longer, if the heat is very low). If at first the stew seems a bit dry, cover the pan until the vegetables begin to give up their juices, then uncover and continue to simmer until the juices are reduced. If the stew has sufficient liquid at the beginning, simply leave the pan uncovered as it simmers.
When the ratatouille is finished, correct the seasoning with salt & pepper. The ratatouille may be served immediately, but it tastes better if allowed to “ripen” overnight. Let cool to room temperature and then cover and refrigerate. Bring the ratatouille back to room temperature or reheat it before serving. In any case, just before serving, stir in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Makes about 5 cups.
(Recipe adapted from Lulu's Provençal Table, by Richard Olney)