Take time for a vegetable classic Food: What's cooking?
Sometimes we learn the hard way that the more time you take in cooking, the bigger the payoff.
Until recently, I made a lazy version of the French vegetable classic, ratatouille, by chopping up a mess of vegetables (eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers, onions, garlic and tomatoes), adding some herbs (basil, thyme), and simmering it all in the slow cooker or on the stovetop.
Not a bad dish -- but a far cry from the ratatouille of its native Provence. There, peak-of-freshness vegetables are treated with high-quality olive oil and appropriate respect to make a dish greater than the sum of its parts. I learned this by making a ratatouille “gratin” (the word refers to a casserole with a layer of toasted bread or cheese) from the new cookbook “Hungry for France” by Alexander Lobrano. It took only a bit more work than my slow-cooker version, and the results were dramatically more flavorful.
Ratatouille is one of those “classics” about which there is dissent. Some cooks include bell peppers and Nicoise olives, while others do not. Fresh herbs are important, but which herbs? Basil almost always makes an appearance, but there are those who argue in favor of “herbes de Provence,” a mix of marjoram, rosemary, savory, thyme and oregano (and in the U.S., lavender). Julia Child, in the epic “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” sticks to plain old parsley.
The ratatouille recipe in “Hungry For France” comes from chef Ronan Kervarrec of La Chevre d’Or in the village of Eze, France, on the Cote d’Azur, part of the region known as Provence- Alpes-Cote d’Azur, or PACA. Predictably, Kervarrec has his own take on ratatouille. Like Julia Child, he layers it in a terrine or casserole dish, but unlike her, he omits the peppers, uses a variety of herbs, and makes a sauce out of the tomatoes instead of simply layering them in the dish. Speaking of heresy, he adds canned tomatoes to the fresh, vine-ripened ones.
Ratatouille is actually better if made the day before; the flavors intensify as it rests. It can be served hot or at room temperature (my preference) with simple roast chicken or meat, or make it a meal by layering some ricotta or mozzarella in it before baking.
GRATIN Yield: 8 side servings, or 4 to 6 main course servings For the tomato sauce: 1/ 4- cup extra- virgin olive oil
1/ 2 large chopped 2 garlic cloves, sliced 1/2-pint cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 pound vine-ripened tomatoes, chopped
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes, with juices
2 large basil sprigs with stems
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper For the gratin: Extra-virgin olive oil, for brushing and drizzling
1 pound zucchini, sliced crosswise into 1/4inch thick rounds
1 pound eggplant, quartered lengthwise and sliced crosswise into 1/4inch thick slices
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 slice sourdough bread, about 1/2 inch thick, crust removed, toasted 2 garlic cloves, sliced 1/4 cup packed mixed fresh parsley, thyme and rosemary leaves
Make the tomato sauce:
onion, In a large saucepan, heat oil until hot. Add onion and garlic and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add cherry tomatoes, vine-ripened tomatoes, diced tomatoes and basil, and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer, and then cook over medium heat until sauce thickens, 20 to 30 minutes. Discard the basil. Using an immersion blender, puree sauce until smooth. Alternatively, puree in a regular blender or food processor, working in batches (be careful; the hot liquid will spurt).
Make the gratin: Heat oven to 425 degrees. Brush 2 large rimmed baking sheets with oil. Spread zucchini slices on one sheet and eggplant slices on the other. Brush slices with oil and season with salt and pepper. Bake until tender, 15 to 20 minutes, rotating sheets halfway through.
Tear toasted bread into pieces. In a food processor, pulse bread into large crumbs. Add garlic and herbs and pulse until blended.
Brush a medium terrine or ovenproof casserole dish with oil. Arrange half of the eggplant slices in the terrine, slightly overlapping. Spoon 1/2cup tomato sauce on top. Layer half of the zucchi- ni slices on top, slightly overlapping, followed by another 1/2 cup tomato sauce; repeat layers. Sprinkle bread crumbs on top, season with salt and pepper, and drizzle with oil.
Transfer to oven and bake until bubbling and crisp, about 20 minutes, rotating terrine halfway through. Let stand for 5 minutes, then serve hot, warm or at room temperature. Or cool, cover and refrigerate for up to two days, and bring to room temperature or reheat gently before serving.
( Recipe from “Hungry for France” by Alexander Lobrano; Rizzoli, 2014.)
Ratatouille is a preparation of layered summer vegetables.