Danika Boyle, a talented chef based in Austin whom I first met when she was in Provence running one of her culinary tours in 2009, has agreed to share her recipe.
As I was harvesting my first zucchini (courgette), green peppers, tomatoes and eggplants (aubergine) I knew Danika would have a recipe in hand as she is Provençal at heart. For more recipes go to www.danikaboyle.com or you can check out this and other posts on The Huffington Post www.huffingtonpost.com/danika-boyle/jacques-sunday-chicken_b_850076.html
Alice Waters famously said “What grows together, goes together” and though I couldn’t agree more, believe that there is rarely such a fine example as that of Ratatouille-. The rich reward that comes from the summer liason of eggplant, zucchini, tomato, onion and sweet peppers is as magical as it is practical. As such, there are as many variations as there are people to make it and the name is less associated with a particular taste, than with the process of combining summers largest crops in a stew. The lessons one learns from each ingredient in its relationship to the whole, also make this dish a fine tool in teaching the fundamental properties of 5 of our most versatile summer crops.
The points to consider when making a Ratatouille:
- Olive Oil is not just preferred, it is as essential to the dish such as eggs would be to a cake. Not the star, but the means by which the vegetables are transformed. A good quality extra-virgin oil is the best and for a standard preparation of Ratatouille- enough for 4 main or 8 coursed servings- it isnt unusual to use 2-3 cups.
- The method of cooking is to slowly sweat and melt each vegetable giving the time and independence necessary to release their essence and absorb that of the rest. The process of cooking from start to finish should last no less than one hour as it roughly takes the onions and peppers about 5-7 minutes each, the zucchini about 10 and the eggplant about 12 minutes to break down and then a minimum 20-30 minutes should be given them all together and will be worth the amazing result.
- On seasoning, seeded vegetables wilt eeasily with the sprinkling of salt. Should you find your eggplant a little too old or large, the season dry, take it and sprinkle it with salt and leave in a colander to drain before rinsing and using. I prefer to salt each round of vegetables with ½ tsp of kosher salt and a pinch of fine pepper for a total use of 2 ½ tsp. If using a sea salt such as fleur de sel, omit one portion of that process and taste periodically for desired preference. The acidity of the tomatoes will often times mask the level of saltiness so its best to taste at the near end, once the stew has been left to simmer and mellow. It is true as well in tasting many hot soups and stews to try your spoonful at room temp. If in doubt, add a ½ tsp of sugar beforehand to see if that balances the acidity.
- Since some seeded vegetables including tomatoes, zucchini are actually classified as fruits, they require a closer observation of their appearance, the climatic conditions in which they are grown and their actual taste when working with them. As a fruit, they can easily be bitter instead of sweet, develop an inconsistent texture within, and if left to ripen for too long on their plant, develop seeds that are either too large or too tough to consume. Its possible to cook around any of these issues but its necessary to know how. For instance, if it has been an unusually dry and hot season, the tomatoes might come earlier and in larger quantities but their flesh will often be poor from with the intense and rapid ripening. Additionally, without much rain eggplant and zucchini if left to ripen on their plant too long, develop seeds that need to be removed when using.
- There are many variations that can be added such as the addition of anchovies, mushrooms, herbs such as basil or dried herbs de Provence, but I am focusing on the classic combination as I find the beauty is in the simple and earnest components similar to that of a good Bordeaux or Rhone. It needn’t be confused with a succotash or a dish that allows for an anything goes attitude.
Begin with 2 medium sized onions, 2 large sweet peppers, 3 medium sized zucchini, 3 medium sized eggplant or 2 large ones, 4 tomatoes and 4-5 cloves of garlic. Slice your onions into thin ribbons, the eggplant and zucchini into rounds and then cubes, seed and dice the peppers and finely chop your garlic. Quarter the tomatoes, tasting for their sweetness and texture.
In a small saucepan, add 2 parts olive oil- about ⅓ cup to 1 part vinegar- either balsamic or red wine is preferred. Place over a low flame and add half the garlic. once the garlic begins to release its aroma and the vinegar snaps a bit, add the tomatoes and with the back of a fork roughly mash into the warm vinegerette. Allow the mixture to cook slowly into a nice consistency--about 10 minutes and thick enough to pick up with a fork. Season with 1 tsp of salt and if necessary, a tsp of sugar. The balsamic, heated as before, will also act to mellow the acidity of the tomatoes.
Meanwhile, take a large stock pot or deep sided stainless steel saute pan and over medium low heat, add ¼ of cup of olive oil and the onions. In this case, beginning with the onions first allows for their natural high moisture to be released and combined with the olive oil will serve to protect the subsequent vegetables from too much coloration. Once the onions have melted and show signs of limpness if picked up with a fork, add in the peppers and repeat the process. Once the eggplant has been added and allowed to cook for 10-12 minutes, add in the remainder of the garlic and stir. Add to the mixture the tomato sauce and another ¼ cup of olive oil if necessary. The “stock” of the dish being the olive oil, will reduce slightly but provide an elegant and luxurious liquid which will take on the color of the stew. Allow the mixture to cook slowly for at least 20 minutes and preferably 40. Checking the bottom of the pan from time to time, scrape away any bits that are stuck as it will thicken and enhance the end result, adding more olive oil if necessary to moisten.
Once cooked, allow to cool and settle for a few hours before serving. Ratatouille is a dish highly recommended for use the next day and can be served warm or cold, and with most wines--red, white and rose.