brainwagon "There is much pleasure in useless knowledge." — Bertrand Russell

11Jul/072

Eating your own food…

I love food. I mean I really love it. I love the culture. I love the taste. I love the social aspects of food. I love the different cultures. The spice. The flavor. Flames. Ovens. Bread. Meats. Fruits. It's all good, baby.

I really enjoyed working on Ratatouille, but it did have one negative effect on my life: I simply didn't have the time to cook for myself very often, and I got out of the habit. Net result: more fast food, and I put on twenty pounds. Sigh.

On the way home today, I thought I should cook up a dish which was high in vegetables (it does actually qualify as vegan) and yet satisfying and which shouldn't take a huge amount of time to make. And so, I thought I'd try making a ratatouille. It's difficult, because while I have enjoyed cuisines from all over the world, I must admit that I'm pretty darned ignorant when it comes to French food. It just wasn't part of the wide variety I had when growing up, and I never bothered to pick it up.

I had read a bunch of recipes for Ratatouille lately, and just decided to wing it. I'm not a bad cook overall, and have some experience, so I bet that if I just cooked the ingredients in a reasonably sane way, I'd come up with something reasonably tasty. As far as I could tell from reading recipes, I needed:

  • Eggplant. I'm not a big fan of eggplant, but it is growing on me. I used the little chinese ones, which were available and looked better. I use these when I make eggplant with garlic sauce, so I know what they are like. I took a pound of them, scrubbed them, cut into 3 inch lengths, and then sliced into planks about 1/4 inch thick.
  • Zucchini. Same thing: experience tells me to use the smaller ones. Again, about a pound. Scrubbed and sliced slightly thinner than the eggplant. My experience is that they are firmer than the eggplant, and I wanted the sizes to be about the same, so I started these thinner.
  • One yellow onion. Coarse dice. I like yellow ones, but not the sweet ones, which are often too sweet.
  • One green pepper. Coarse dice.
  • One big can of diced tomatoes in juice. In the best of all possible worlds, you'd probably seed your own fresh tomatoes, but most tomatoes you get in the supermarket are tasteless. Good canned tomatoes are much better than bad fresh ones.

So... winging it, I remember that the ratatouille should have relatively little liquid when complete, so controlling liquid is important. I tossed the eggplant and the zucchini in a bit of olive oil, sprinkled them with a little kosher salt, and spread them onto a baking sheet. I popped them into a 400 degree oven, then started to work on the onions. I heated a big fry pan, added a little olive oil and then dumped in the green pepper and the onions. I let this go for maybe ten minutes on medium heat. I wasn't trying to brown the onions and peppers, but merely to get them cooked and soft. Once that was accomplished, I added three cloves of crushed garlic, a little fresh ground black pepper, but no more salt (the tomatoes are salty, I didn't want to make the overall dish too salty). After cooking the garlic for 30 seconds, I drained the juice off the tomatoes (we are trying to keep the liquid out after all) and dumped in the tomatoes. They will seem pretty dry for a couple of minutes, then will begin to sweat out more liquid. When that is nearly evaporated, I turned off the heat, and pulled the mixture off the burner.

By then, the zucchini and the eggplant both looked nicely cooked, a little limp, with a tiny bit of color around the edges, but still a little bit firm. I took a 9" square pyrex pan (I need to get a good casserole someday), spread about a third of the tomato mixture in the bottom, then added half of the eggplant and zucchini in a layer. I then added the rest of the tomatoes, and then stacked the rest of the eggplant and zucchini on top. Back into the 400 degree oven for ten minutes uncovered. I pulled the dish out, took some of the liquid out, and basted the top. There wasn't much at this time, so I added a couple of tablespoons of the tomato liquid on top as well. Back into the oven for fifteen minutes. The liquids were then bubbling in the side, which i thought was bad (too wet), but I wasn't going to screw with it more. I turned the oven off, and let it sit for a few minutes (my wife came home ten minutes later). After sitting on the counter for a couple of minutes, most of the liquids had been reabsorbed by the cooling vegetables, and I was relatively pleased with the overall texture and moisture.

I served it in bowls, and topped it with a little more fresh ground black pepper (I like pepper) and some fresh chopped parsley.

I don't know what ratatouille is supposed to taste like, but this was really good! It was a nice mix between the texture of the squash and eggplant, the acidity of the tomatoes (which were still chunky), the onions, green pepper (subtly sweet, basically hard to pick out by itself, but there) and the mild flavor of garlic. I bet you this dish would be even better the next day reheated, as the flavors meld together. I had two bowls. If I had the time to make some home baked bread, that would have been incredible.

This dish wasn't quite what Thomas Keller designed for our movie, but I can see why it is a classic. Natural flavors, seasoned appropriately, cooked appropriately, melding together in a warm, filling dish. It may not send you back to your childhood (my grandmother's kosher garlic dill pickles, pork roast, or my great aunts pies would do that), but it was a damned good dish, worthy of your consideration. It is nearly ideal in terms of my philosophy of food: use good ingredients, and let their natural flavors come through in interesting combinations. It's also a pretty damned good dish, with lots of bulk but fairly low in calories.

Give it a try.

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