Dip into the late-summer vegetables for a traditional Provençal dish.
Five years ago, Pixar released "Ratatouille" to great critical acclaim. In the film, an adorable rat with a dream of becoming a chef befriends a clumsy young cook and infiltrates a fancy restaurant kitchen. In the film's climactic scene, the rat wins over a fastidious restaurant critic with his elegant variation on ratatouille.
Unfortunately, the adorable rat was doing ratatouille wrong. The version of ratatouille featured in "Ratatouille," also known as confit biyaldi, is a visual delight: razor-thin slices of tomato, zucchini and eggplant arranged artfully over a bell-pepper purée and baked for hours.
But ratatouille is not supposed to be a visual delight; it's supposed to make short work of as many late-summer vegetables as possible simultaneously. Ratatouille was invented by Provençal peasants, and Provençal peasants possessed neither the time nor the inclination to slice vegetables with such precision or to bake them as gently and slowly as possible. What they had the time and inclination for was stew.
But ratatouille isn't quite as simple as throwing chopped vegetables in a pot with some olive oil and cooking them until they fall apart, either. The key vegetables of ratatouille -- eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, bell pepper, onions and garlic -- all cook at different rates. If you try to cook them all together, the eggplant will still be hard when the tomatoes have turned to mush. You can sauté the vegetables individually to make sure each achieves its perfect level of tenderness before you combine them all, but that will take you back into multi-hour territory.
Another approach: Time the addition of each vegetable to the pot according to its hardiness and hope that they'll all finish cooking together. This is a step in the right direction. The only problem is the zucchini, which can go from unpleasantly crunchy to unpleasantly mushy with no territory in between when you simmer it with other vegetables. The solution is to use the same technique I suggest for zucchini soup: Roast the zucchini to dry it out, gently caramelize it and make it appropriately tender. While the zucchini's in the oven, sauté the onion, eggplant and bell pepper. The zucchini and the eggplant will be ready at about the same time -- at which point you combine them with chopped tomatoes and simmer them down to a rich, thick, silky paste.
Precision in measuring is pointless when you're making ratatouille. You want roughly equal amounts (by weight) of eggplant, zucchini and tomato, and smaller amounts of bell pepper and onion -- but if your garden is producing way more of one than the others, use what nature gives you. Ripe tomatoes, zucchini and eggplant picked at the height of seasonality usually taste good, but even the ripest eggplant needs a little help in the flavor department. That's where copious amounts of garlic and olive oil come in, plus a scattering of fresh basil and thyme. Slightly less orthodox is the addition of oil-cured black olives -- the wrinkled, faintly bitter kind -- which stud the vegetable melange with little pockets of intense saltiness. (Olives are, of course, one of the many gastronomic specialties of the south of France.)
For additional Frenchiness, put on Vincent Delerm's eponymous album and serve with hunks of baguette smeared with chèvre and glasses of ice-cold rosé.
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