Thanks to a cartoon rat, the vegetable dish finds new fame
By Susan Manley firstname.lastname@example.org
In the movie Ratatouille, Remy is an animated Parisian rat with big culinary dreams.Unfortunately for him, he lives in a society that shuns rodents in the kitchen.
Now a household word because of all the movie hype, ratatouille is also a tasty French vegetable stew.
Pronounced ra-ta-TOO-ee, the name is derived from the French words “rata,” French Army slang meaning “chunky stew,” and “touiller,” meaning “to stir.”
When Disney set out to make the animated movie Ratatouille, the creators from Pixar turned to California chef Thomas Keller for guidance, according to press reports.
In the fickle chef world, Keller is nothing less than a god. He’s the genius behind French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., often referred to as the best restaurant in the United States, and Per Se in New York City. Being immortalized in animation might just have cemented that reputation.
For the movie, Keller whipped up a ratatouille recipe that takes the traditional peasant stew of tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers and onions with garlic, olive oil and sometimes Herbs de Provence and made it less of a stew and more of a casserole by layering it.
Local chefs like to keep it simple when it comes to ratatouille, sticking with the tried, true and speedy recipe that satisfies.
“We were just talking about Ratatouille, it is so funny that you asked,” said Jeff Paige, chef and co-owner of Cotton in Manchester.
Paige said that one of his cooks, a recent graduate of Cordon Bleu in Dover, is moving to Paris for three months, and that he wants Cotton’s kitchen crew to go see the movie before he leaves.
“The movie sounds great and ratatouille, what a great dish,” Paige said.
Paige has been making ratatouille for so long, he said, that he can’t remember where or when he learned the recipe.
“It is one of those things, something you learn to make early on in your career. It is a dish that tends to resonate with summer because it is so easy to put together, especially when zucchini is in season,” Paige said. Cotton runs ratatouille as a special side dish throughout the summer.
At Michael Timothy’s in Nashua, chef Steve Narducci also makes ratatouille the traditional French way, and in addition to serving it as a side dish he sometimes tops filets of fish, chicken or beef with it and occasionally features it as a vegetarian option, served roasted with melted cheese.
“I first learned to cook ratatouille as a new cook. It is the kind of dish that gets delegated to new cooks because there is so much chopping,” Narducci said.
Ratatouille should be prepared with little fuss. Overcook it and it will turn to mush. Undercook it and the vegetables will be tough. Not like risotto which has to be babysat, a simple peasant-style ratatouille requires less than 10 minutes of your time once it is in the pan.
Fortunately eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes have the same consistency, so they cook at the same pace. Peppers and onions require a few more minutes in the hot pan to soften, so add them first.
Some cooks use just garlic, olive oil and oregano. Some add Herbs de Provence, that cute clay pot of blended herbs adds an aromatic flavor to the ragout. Equally good hot or cold, ratatouille also makes a fine accompaniment to cold meats, or may be served as a cold hors d’oeuvre with hearty crackers and a slice of good cheese. It is good reheated, because it seems to pick up flavors.
Julia Child can be credited with first bringing ratatouille into our homes. Looking for ways to bring French food to American tables, with this dish she brought the labor-intensive version. Child cooked each ingredient separately and then combined them. This recipe, along with Keller’s, takes ratatouille away from its peasant roots.
Ratatouille is best using one good pot, one spoon and the freshest vegetables you can find.
Thomas Keller’s Ratatouille
Keller’s version is sophisticated and layered.
1/2 red pepper, seeds and ribs removed
1/2 yellow pepper, seeds and ribs removed
1/2 orange pepper, seeds and ribs removed
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 cup finely diced yellow onion
3 tomatoes (about 12 ounces total weight), peeled, seeded and finely diced, juices reserved
1 sprig thyme
1 sprig flat-leaf parsley
1/2 bay leaf
1 zucchini (4 to 5 ounces) sliced in 1/16-inch rounds
1 Japanese eggplant (4 to 5 ounces) sliced into 1/16-inch rounds
1 yellow squash (4 to 5 ounces) sliced into 1/16-inch rounds
4 Roma tomatoes, sliced into 1/16-inch rounds
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/8 teaspoon thyme leaves
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
Assorted fresh herbs (thyme flowers, chervil, thyme)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
To make piperade: Heat oven to 450 degrees. Place pepper halves on a foil-lined sheet, cut side down. Roast until skin loosens, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let rest until cool enough to handle. Peel and chop finely.
Combine oil, garlic and onion in medium skillet and cook over low heat on stovetop until very soft but not browned, about 8 minutes. Add tomatoes, their juices, thyme, parsley and bay leaf. Simmer over low heat until very soft and very little liquid remains, about 10 minutes, do not brown; add peppers and simmer to soften them. Season to taste with salt and discard herbs. Reserve 1 tablespoon of mixture and spread remainder in bottom of an 8-inch ovenproof skillet.
To prepare vegetables:
Heat oven to 275 degrees. In center of skillet arrange 8 alternating slices of vegetables, 2 each of zucchini, eggplant, squash and tomatoes, over piperade, overlapping in a circle so that 1/4 inch of each slice is exposed.
Continue alternating and overlapping vegetables in a close spiral that lets slices mound slightly in center. Repeat until the pan is filled; you might not need all the vegetables. Mix garlic, oil and thyme leaves in bowl and season with salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle over vegetables. Cover skillet with foil and crimp edges to seal well. Bake until vegetables are tender when tested with a paring knife, about 2 hours. Uncover and bake for 30 minutes more. (Lightly cover with foil if it starts to brown.) If there is excess liquid in pan, place over medium heat on stove until reduced. (At this point it may be cooled, covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days. If desired, reheat in 350-degree oven until warm.)
To make vinaigrette: Combine reserved piperade, oil, vinegar, herbs, and salt and pepper to taste in a bowl.
To serve: Heat broiler and place byaldi underneath until lightly browned. Cut in quarters and very carefully lift one quarter onto plate with offset spatula. Turn spatula 90 degrees, guiding byaldi into fan shape. Drizzle vinaigrette around plate.
Recipe by Jean Calviac from Your Own Private Gascony
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, coarsely chopped
2 large tomatoes (about 1 pound), halved and sliced 1/2 inch thick
1 medium eggplant (1 pound), cut into 1-inch dice
1/2 pound zucchini, sliced crosswise 1 inch thick
1 medium red bell pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 bay leaf
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Heat the olive oil in a large, deep skillet. Add the onion and cook over moderate heat until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Reduce the heat to moderately low and add the tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, bell pepper and bay leaf. Season with salt and pepper, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are very tender, about 1 hour. Discard the bay leaf and serve warm or at room temperature.
The ratatouille can be refrigerated for 3 days..