Monday, September 10, 2012

When an abundance of summer vegetables overtakes you, take the French way out!

As part of our series on French food this month to celebrate the launch of my “French” mystery novel, The Fallen One, I’m going to look at one of our favorite recipes to make at this time of the year. When you’re tripping over ripe vegetables in your garden, what do you do?

If you’re French, you probably consider making Ratatouille, a fantastic vegetable stew! “Peasant food” it may be considered by those snooty Parisian restaurants, but it is honest, tastes wonderful and not difficult to prepare.

Having just gotten through our annual tomato sauce party yesterday with 6 really good friends (over 100 liters produced), I’m of course thinking of tomatoes. These are one of the key ingredients in ratatouille. Other commonly grown garden vegetables go into it as well: onions, zucchini, eggplant and peppers.

Have these out back and wondering what to do with all of them? Today’s posting can help.

One of my early blog postings here was about a favorite recipe: Grilled Mussels. This recipe comes from a fantastic cookbook, Lulu’s Provençal Table by Richard Olney. A favorite of mine to just browse through – it really is a lovely volume – we noticed early on that it had an interesting recipe for Ratatouille.

Having made this dish for years in a sort of haphazard way, just throwing things in that happened to be around –  with haphazard results – we were intrigued when we found Lulu’s take on it. First of all, her recipe looked pretty rigorous, but it also had an interesting approach: each of the vegetables were to be cooked separately, then combined for a final simmering.

It is a bit more work, certainly, cooking the dish in this manner, but the results are spectacular. Each ingredient stands out more, the textures are marvelous, and the flavours, especially after some mellowing in the fridge and reheating, get better and better. After our first try, we quickly declared this our Official Recipe.

If you make it, I’m confident you’ll feel the same way!

Lulu’s Ratatouille
Serves 6-8

2/3 cup olive oil (the good stuff only!)
1 lb large sweet onions, split in two, then finely sliced
1¼ tsp salt
6 large garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced
1 lb zucchini, quartered lengthwise and cut into ¾" sections
1 lb firm, young or baby eggplant, cut into ¾" cubes
1 lb tomatoes, peeled, seeded and quartered
3 large sweet peppers (1 each of red, green and yellow), grilled, and cut lengthwise into 
narrow strips, juices reserved*
2 bay leaves
3 fresh thyme sprigs, tied together
salt & freshly-ground pepper to taste
2 Tbs olive oil

1. In a wide, heavy 8-10 quart pot, cook the onions in 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, covered, over very low heat, for at least 30 minutes, or until they are melting and simmering in their own juices, but uncolored. Remove the lid, raise the heat, and cook, stirring regularly, until they are uniformly light golden brown. Add ½ teaspoon of the salt, garlic and the prepped zucchini and continue to stir regularly.

2. Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, sauté the eggplant in 4 tablespoons of the oil with ½ teaspoon of the salt until the pieces are softened. Add them to the pot with the onions and zucchini.

3. Add more oil to the frying pan if it is nearly dry. Over high heat, add the tomatoes and ¼ teaspoon of salt, and sauté, shaking the pan and stirring constantly until the liquid has evaporated. Remove them from the heat before they start to disintegrate, and add to the pot with the other vegetables.

4. Add the peppers and their juices to the pot, plus the bay leaves and thyme. Simmer over low heat, uncovered, for about 2 hours, stirring from time to time, until all excess liquid has evaporated and the vegetables are coated in a syrupy sauce. Adjust the seasoning.

5. Serve warm or at room temperature. This dish benefits from 1 of 2 days of refrigeration in order to allow the flavors to ripen. Bring to room temperature and stir in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil at the last minute.

*Special note: If you’ve never grilled peppers before, it’s really simple. You can do it in the kitchen (okay) or outside on your barbecue (better) or over a wood fire (best). Here’s how to do it.

If you’re doing it in the kitchen, your broiler is probably easiest. On the barbie, put the peppers right on the fire (charcoal or propane). On a wood fire, let it get to the point where you have good embers and throw the peppers on. Using tongs (long ones are best outside because it will be really hot), turn the peppers until they’re totally charred on all sides.

Next, put them into a pot with a tight lid and leave them for 10 to 15 minutes. This will loosen the skins. To remove the charred skin – and working over a bowl to catch the juices – pull and rub and it will come off. For any stubborn bits, use a sharp knife to pull it away. Still over the bowl, cut out the core and the seeds and any ribs inside the peppers, and you’re done. Strain those juices you’ve caught (they add a marvellous, smokey flavor) and carry on with the recipe.

Here’s a link to the winery Lulu and her family own: Domaine Tempier. It’s well worth a visit.

1 comment:

Rick Blechta said...

Since I don't have a photo of our own ratatouille and had to “borrow” one off the internet, I decided to make a pot of this marvelous meal, purely for photographic purposes, you understand.

It’s doing its final simmer right now and the incredible aroma of it is making my mouth water (from the other end of our house. All of Vicki’s students’ parents have asked what it is we’re cooking. I wish the web had “smell-o-vision” or something like that so I could share it with you all. It smells that good.

The most important hint we can pass on is to roast the peppers over a wood fire or just charcoal, if that’s all you can manage. The smokey aroma really adds something indescribable to this dish. Lulu is a genius!