I love the movie Ratatouille. When it first came out, I hadn't ever eaten the title dish, but I've since made it two times, with this dinner being my third. Last summer, Nathan smartly suggested I made it to use up some of my summer food co-op vegetables. Despite having seen the movie, I didn't even know much about the ingredient list, but it ended up matching up quite perfectly with a mid-summer's CSA share. Peppers, zucchini, yellow summer squash, eggplant, tomato, onions, tomatoes, garlic, basil, parsley... All farm fresh and organic from the farm. With ingredients that good, you can't miss.
ratatouille, fresh from the farm
The second time, I made ratatouille for a cooking class I was teaching for my roommate Laura, who runs a Saturday club program for girls in middle school. It was still tasty, but not nearly as good with winter grocery store vegetables. This is a meal that really sings in the summer, when everything is at the peak of ripeness. I'm not one to strictly adhere to seasonal eating, but in some cases there is just no arguing against it.
My last food co-op share before I broke my jaw, I had to marvel over just how closely the vegetables we were given matched the ratatouille ingredient list. The only things it was lacking was parsley, which I had already gotten at the grocery store, and tomatoes, which I picked up at Harlem's new Mt. Morris Park Farmers' Market, a scant 13 blocks from my house. Armed with my first local tomatoes of the summer, I was ready to go. Almost.
Even though I'd made the dish twice fairly recently, I found myself without a recipe, and unable to find the one that had served me so well last year. From what I could remember, my recipe was fairly straightforward. The vegetables were all cooked together in the same pot, added one at a time. When I tried to find a recipe, most involved cooking each component separately, and for salting, draining and pressing the zucchini and eggplant. This was more work than I cared to do, and more than was actually unnecessary, if my last year's ratatouille wasn't just a wonderful fluke.
I wound up perusing a Chowhound thread on the subject, and while I didn't find a recipe exactly like the one I was looking for, I did read through enough of them to feel comfortable trying to recreate the one pot method I had found last summer, although I did decide alter it slightly by cooking the tomatoes separately.
I started with the onions, sauteing them in olive oil with salt and pepper. I also threw in some of the beautiful herbs of provence that Nathan's mom Tenli gave me for Christmas for a real French feeling. In a second pot I sauteed some garlic in olive oil, and then added one and half large chopped tomatoes. I let this sauce simmer while I took care of the rest of the veggies in pot number one.
I let the onions cook for awhile, and then I added in succession one green pepper, one yellow squash and zucchini and one medium eggplant, each cut into small chunks. I cooked each vegetable for five minutes or so before adding the next one. I added the eggplant last because I was worried about it soaking up too much of the oil. (That's why so many of the other recipes suggested salting and pressing it.) I'm happy to report that it worked out just fine. Once the eggplant had softened, I added the tomato sauce and a decent amount of chopped basil and parsley.
Ultimately, I was a bit worried that it would wind up bland, so I loaded up on freshly cracked pepper and added some dried oregano. I let that cook for maybe five minutes more, and then took it off the heat. When my mom tried it a few days later, she commented that there was too much oregano, so I may have been a bit over zealous there. Personally, I thought it was deliciously fresh and herbaceous; a perfect celebration of summer!
Unlike the dish Remy the rat makes in the movie, my ratatouille is not particularly beautiful or elegant. It's a simple, rustic dish. Though it's not much to look at, it more than makes up for its humble appearance with its bold taste. If you're looking for something a bit more visually impressive, you can actually make the dish as seen in the movie, a fancier variation of ratatouille called confit byaldi. The official recipe comes from renowned chef Thomas Keller. Julia Child also makes a fancier layered version. For me, easier was better, what with the heat we were experiencing for most of July, but I'd definitely love to try a more high end version of the dish some day. Regardless of appearance, I'm sure it's hard to make a ratatouille that's anything but delicious, especially this time of year. It's just the thing to make with your summer vegetables!