Ode to Alice Waters’ Ratatouille

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I love summer. I did not always love summer. Growing up in California, I was fairly indifferent to it. When you live in a place where people wear shorts and flip flops in January, seasons seem like arbitrary distinctions. But nothing clarifies like contrast and the juxtaposition of winter and summer in the Midwest has given me a greater appreciation of a simple sunny day than I ever thought possible.

Summer here in the city means more than just the sun. It also means that every day of the week, somewhere in the city, there is a farmer’s market. All summer long, I turn corners and am greeted with fresh bread, good cheese, and rows and rows of vegetables. My favorite thing to do in the summer is to come home with a bag full of pretty things and make something that I could never make without really fresh ingredients. Like this ratatouille.

This is Alice Waters’ Ratatouille and if you aren’t familiar with Alice Waters, you should check her out. (When I want to cook vegetables, I trust two people above all others – Alice Waters and Deborah Madison. Go and seek out their books and learn. They are masters of all things veggie.) Alice’s recipe here is really straight forward. An equal amount of all the vegetables. Simple clean flavors. Everything gets cooked in one pot (though you will need a number of prep bowls for all the veggies). The eggplant gets some special attention at the start, which it needs because eggplant cooks differently than everything else in this dish, but the final result is nothing short of spectacular.

You salt the eggplant and let it drain before cooking it. This process draws the excess moisture out of the eggplant and prevents it from becoming too soggy when cooked. The technical name for it is “degorging”, which can be added to the pantheon of dirty sounding things that are done in the kitchen. Grinding, pounding, shucking, sweating, rubbing, whipping. The kitchen can be a pervy sounding place sometimes. It is important to acknowledge this and giggle about it a little. The minute you take the kitchen too seriously, your food becomes joyless.

Once the eggplant is degorged (hehe), you lightly fry it (over medium heat, be sure not to bring the heat up too high) and then set it aside while you soften the other vegetables. Starting with the onion, then adding the garlic and basil along with some dried chile flakes (or crushed red pepper). The tiny hint of heat from the chile here is what makes the sauce bowl licking good in my opinion. The remaining veggies get added in a specific order — peppers then squash then tomatoes — so that the ones that take the longest to soften (the peppers) get the most time in the pan. The eggplant gets added back in for the last 10 minutes to bring it all together.

This is also an easy recipe to halve, which is what I did. I used one small Chinese eggplant, two small onions, one red bell pepper, a bunch of baby squash, and a handful of large cherry tomatoes. The original recipe called for about 1 pound of each vegetable so halving or doubling it is easy math. I highly recommend eating this with some good quality bread because you will want to eat every last bit of sauce in the bowl. Though there is no shame in licking the bowl clean. Licking the bowl clean is a thing of triumph. Never let anyone tell you different.

Alice Waters’ Ratatouille

1 medium or 2 small eggplants
2 medium or 4 small onions
4 cloves of garlic**
1/2 bunch of basil tied in a bouquet with kitchen twine and 6 basil leaves, finely chopped*
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon dried chile flakes (to taste)
2 sweet peppers
3 medium summer squash (recommend a mix of yellow and green)
3 medium tomatoes (or about 16 large cherry tomatoes)
Olive oil (at least 5 tablespoons)
Kosher salt***
Flaky sea salt***

First, everything gets chopped into 1/2 inch dice so start with your eggplant. Dice it, then toss it with a teaspoon of kosher salt and set in a colander in the sink to drain while you chop the other veggies. Everything gets added at different times so make sure all the chopped veggies get their own prep bowls.

Once the eggplant has finished draining, heat about two tablespoons of oil over medium heat in a dutch oven or other large heavy bottomed pot. (You never want this pot to get too hot. No sizzling or smoking oil.) Add the eggplant and cook, stirring frequently until it is golden brown, about five minutes. If the eggplant sticks at all, add a little more oil. When the eggplant is cooked, remove from the pot and set aside.

Add two more tablespoons of oil and heat. Then add the onion and cook until soft and translucent, about six to eight minutes. Add the basil bouquet, the garlic and the chile flakes with a generous pinch of the flaky sea salt. Cook for two to three minutes to blend the flavors thoroughly into the oil. Add the peppers and cook for a few minutes, stirring frequently, until the color of the peppers soften. (You are not cooking until the texture softens, there will be plenty of time for that. You just want the color of the pepper to lose its sharpness.) Add the squash and cook for two to three minutes, stirring frequently. Add the tomato and cook for ten minutes, stirring frequently. (It sounds like you stir a lot making this dish, but just remember that stirring frequently does not mean stirring constantly. You just want to make sure that everything gets its turn at the bottom of the pot.) Now add the eggplant and cook for ten to fifteen more minutes until everything softens and gets a little saucy.

Remove the pot from the heat. Take out the basil bouquet, pressing it against the side of the pot to extract any oil. (Do not forget to do this. There is so much flavor soaking in those leaves. You want that.) Taste the dish and add more salt or olive oil to taste. Sprinkle with the finely chopped basil leaves and serve with crusty bread for sopping up all the delicious sauce.

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* The basil that I bought was one big bunch still attached at the stem so I picked off a few leaves for the garnish and simply left the rest attached at the stem and put that in without bothering with the twine. (And if you do not have any kitchen twine, you can substitute unwaxed unflavored dental floss for kitchen twine. I was trussing chickens with dental floss for years before I finally bought some twine. The floss always worked great.)

** Anyone who has read some of my previous blog posts knows that I made some garlic mojo (garlic slow cooked in oil with lime juice) not that long ago and have been putting it in everything. This was no exception. I swapped out the fresh garlic for a teaspoon of garlic mojo. I have no regrets. I think if I were making this and I had no garlic mojo on hand, I might still roast the garlic before putting it in because I really liked the softer taste from the garlic mojo here.

*** This is where I am getting fussy. When salting before cooking, I always use the kosher salt. The bigger grain does the best job of drawing out moisture without vanishing. But once the dish is on the stovetop, I use the nice flaky Maldon’s sea salt. It dissolves more cleanly, it has better flavor than your average sea salt, and a little of it goes a long way.

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