Rat-tat-too-ee, or, An Evening at the Veggie Spa

If you haven’t heard of ratatouille before, maybe you’ve heard of that cute Disney movie by the same name. And no, before anyone gets cheeky, it is not a dish that contains rat. In any case, it’s a traditional peasant dish from the Provencale region of France–land of bountiful summertime vegetables like tomatoes, squash, peppers, and eggplant…oh wait! Those are in season here in Virginia! And as any trip to the local farmer’s market will tell you, we’re up to our ears in ’em! So, this is what I made for dinner (along with a focaccia), and in honor of Julia Child‘s birthday this week, I decided to use her recipe.

In her introduction, Julia says this: “Ratatouille (Eggplant Cassserole – with tomatoes, onions, peppers, and zucchini).” Now, the very idea of an eggplant casserole would have totally freaked Alex out, so I tried not to tell him exactly what I was doing as I proceeded. (Indeed, when it came time to eat, he asked what the eggplant pieces looked like, and I refused to tell him, in case his preconceived dislike of this nightshade vegetable influenced his chances of winning the clean plate award.) My point here: I wouldn’t really consider it an eggplant casserole; if you’ve got eggplant-phobics in your household, just explain that it’s a summertime vegetable dish, or spaghetti with tomato sauce except with vegetables instead of noodles (is that a stretch?)

She also says: “A really good ratatouille is not one of the quicker dishes to make, as each element is cooked separately before it is arranged in the casserole to partake of a brief communal simmer.” I love that phrase, “a brief communal simmer.” I like to imagine all my veggies hanging out in the hot tub together, chatting about their day and soothing sore muscle fibers. As for cooking everything separately, well, I’ll get into that point later.

Here’s my caramelized onion and rosemary focaccia standing by:

And here’s a mini play-by-play for the ratatouille.

After chopping up 1 medium eggplant and 2 summer squashes (in the future I might use 1 yellow squash and 1 zucchini), the recipe suggested salting them and letting them sit in a bowl for about 30 minutes. This was fine for me because it gave me time to shape and bake my bread. Plus, the salt made the juices in the eggplant and squash loosen up to concentrate their flavors. (Quite the veggie spa experience, eh? Salt scrub and a hot tub!) Then I had to drain off the juices and “dry each slice in a towel.” To save time I laid a large towel on the counter, lined all the veggies up on half of the towel, and folded the other half of the towel over top, pressing gently to dry (salt scrub, rub-down, and hot tub–I’m getting envious of…vegetables?). Once dry, I sauteed the eggplant and squash in a bit of olive oil over medium-high heat, just until they started to get a bit of a brown crust and started to soften. It’s important to do this or else they won’t be quite cooked all the way in the final dish, and if you don’t dry them all the way before you sautee, they’ll have a hard time browning properly and will just sit lazily in the oil.

Next it was the peppers’ and onions’ turn:

Here I’ve used 2 red peppers and 2 medium onions, sliced thinly. After removing the eggplant and squash to a landing pad (a plate standing by on the counter), in went the peppers and onions. I always like to salt my onions when I’m sauteeing them because it seems to help them cook down better. Once they started to soften, I added 3 cloves of minced garlic and about a tablespoon of chopped fresh rosemary. This is my favorite part because of the aroma of the garlic and the rosemary with sweaty onions…yum!

Okay, so back to the point about cooking each element separately. Sure, it makes sense to combine the eggplant/squash and the peppers/onions, because they have similar textures and the cook times for the vegetables in each pair is pretty much the same. I also read in another cookbook once that all the vegetables should be made in separate pans so that they retain their own distinct shape and flavor. But honestly, it’s not like we’re making ratatouille puree here: unless you’re a really aggressive stirrer, the vegetables should retain most of their distinct characteristics (at this point in their spa treatment, they’re probably feeling really good, and I’d think they’d want to flaunt it just a little). Maybe if you were making a smaller batch, you could get away with starting the eggplant/squash first and then adding the peppers/onions later, in the same pot, but my veggies just wouldn’t fit! None of them would have achieved that slight sweaty crust that is so desirable in sauteed veggies. So, I, for practical reasons, did opt for the two batches.

Next, I took a shortcut (ssh!): I added a 1-pound can of diced tomatoes. I used organic tomatoes with no added salt (so that I could control how much salt went into the dish). And while I would have had no trouble finding local tomatoes for the dish, I am a working woman, and did not want to deal with boiling, peeling, and chopping tomato pulp on top of my fiercely segregated vegetable sautees. I also added 2 bay leaves (which, did not actually appear in Madame Child’s recipe). I let that come up to a boil for a few minutes while I washed up some of my dirty dishes. (Remember, you can’t eat bay leaves, so make sure to remove those at the end!)

Finally, it was time to put it all together. Madame Child favors a layered approach: in a fire-safe casserole, she instructs to put one-third of the tomato/pepper mixture, followed by a sprinkling of parsley; on top of that, half of the squash/eggplant. Then another layer of tomato/pepper, parsley, squash/eggplant. And finally, the rest of the tomato/peppers on top. So, that is what I did. If you’re in a hurry though, simply mixing them all gently back together in the pot would probably work just fine.

Then I put the lid on and turned the heat down to low and simmered it for about 15 minutes. This gave me more time to clean up and take care of my compost (post to follow). Uncomfortably, it was raining outside while I tried to balance my camera and food scraps and paper strips, but when I came back in the house, my very soul felt warmed and comforted.

And so, here it is:

Ratatouille and Caramelized Onion/Rosemary Focaccia

Why, yes! It was delicious! Even Alex enjoyed it, though he did swap a couple of his squash for some of my peppers–something about the “squeaky” texture of squash disquiets him. In the future, I’d probably try a different chop on the vegetables–say, a large dice for the squash and eggplant, and even the peppers, so that the final dish is a bit more uniform and not quite so…rectangular…as mine turned out. Fresh rosemary is a must (or herbes de provence, if you’ve got ’em). And remember, this dish is not supposed to be “pretty.” It’s rustic, it’s hearty, and its preparation is therapeutic. Well, if you don’t find chopping things therapeutic, then at least you can rest assured that your veggies are receiving a blissful treatment. This is food that nourishes body and soul. I can’t wait to make a lunch (or two or three) of the leftovers!

What about you? What’s the food you turn to for its therapeutic powers or the way it just makes you feel good? Simple or complex, I’d love to hear about it!


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