Second, you have probably read recipes that call for the vegetables to be "diced" or cut in small pieces. This is totally wrong (unless you plan to use in an omelet). With the exception of the onions and garlic, the smallest pieces should be no less than one inch long. You want to see and decifer what each vegetable is. Dicing creates mushiness and breaking down the vegetables during cooking, thus causing the physical definition of the dish to be diminished. You certainly don't want it to become a puree.
Whew... glad we got that off our chests! Ratatouille (without the "e") is an incredible vegetable dish that has gained notoriety in the last few years with the release of the movie of the same name; however, in France it has been around for decades, if not centuries. The fresh vegetables used, the preparation, the aromas during cooking, all transport you to the land where it originated and became famous, Provence, in the south of France.
This preparation is inspired by the world renown Chef Robuchon; however, I have found that adding one little secret ingredient takes it to the next level and really identifies with its origins. That ingredient is adding a splash of Anise liquor, such as Pernod or Ricard, when sauteing the onions. It adds a very subtle flavor to the dish. I do this with Paella reciipes as well.
Preparation is important when creating Ratatouille. Freshness is all important as well as cooking the main ingredient separately so that each vegetable presents its own unique flavor without being overpowered by the other. Since cooking locks in flavors, when all the ingredients are added together in the final stage, each ratains its own flavors. This is really a much simpler dish to make than you think. Here is what you need for a serving of 4:
10 tablespoons of good quality olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 green bell (or Italian) pepper, peeled and seeded (see below)
1 red pepper, peeled and seeded
1 yellow or orange pepper (optional), peeled and seeded
5 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2 pounds of fresh vine ripened tomatoes, peeled and seeded (see below)
2 medium zuchinis
1 large (2 medium) eggplants
1 teaspoon of thyme
1 teaspoon of saffron threads
2 tablespoons of chopped fresh parsley
Splash of Anise liquor (Ricard or Pernod)
salt and pepper to taste.
Peeling tomatoes and peppers are very easy to do. To peel tomatoes, bring a large pot of water to a boil. On the side, have a bowl of cold water with ice cubes. Set each tomato one at a time in the boiling water and count out about 15 to 20 seconds, quickly remove and set in the ice water for about 15 seconds. At the end where the stem was, take a knife or use your fingers to peel away the skin like you would a banana. The skin should easily peel off. To seed and depulp, simply cut the tomato in quarters. With a sharp knife, cut out the center vein and discard. Next, using your thumb, spoon out the seeds and pulp into a small bowl. Do not discard this nectar, we shall use it to make a wonderful salad dressing on the next post. Stay tuned on that one. Once your tomatoes are peeled and seeded, cut each quarter in half and set aside. You may make diagonal cuts if you wish. See illustrations on peeling, seeding, and cutting below.
To peel peppers is just as easy as with tomatoes. Preheat your oven to 400. Wash and dry the peppers and setting on a cookie sheet. Bake for about 35 minutes, turning the peppers every 10 minutes. Next, transfer peppers to a large bowl and quickly cover tightly with plastic wrap for about 20 minutes. Remove from bowl and at the stem, start peeling the skin off with your thumb and index finger. The skin should easily separate from the flesh. Don't fret if you don't get all the skin off. You should have no problems. Next, cut the peppers in quarters lengthwise, remove the seeds, and cut each quarter in half diagonally as you did with the tomatoes. Set aside.
Peel and chop your onion and garlic and set each aside. Wash your zuchini and cut each in half lengthwise. Leaving the peeling on, cut one inch pieces and set aside. Now you have all the ingredients, with the exception of the eggplant, prepared and ready to cook. You will cut up your eggplant at the last minute so that it doesn't turn brown. You have just completed the most difficult part of preparing Ratatouille.
In a large pot, heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil over medium low heat, but do not let it smoke. Add the onions and saute gently for about 3 minutes. You are not looking to brown the onions, just get them translucent and sweating. Add the Anise liquor and continue to stir. Since, the peppers have been baked or "roasted", they are mostly cooked, so add them to the onions as well as the garlic. Add 2 pinches of salt and pepper and stir. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook for about 5 minutes.
Your tomatoes will add moisture as they cook, so they are a great next addition to the pot. Stir them in and continue to cook, add another dash of salt and pepper, and cover. While ingredients are slow cooking, you will now prepare your zuchini and eggplant. With skin still on, cut your eggplant into one inch by 1/2 inch pieces and set aside.
In a large frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil for two minutes over medium low heat, but do not let it smoke. Add your zuchini and saute for about 4 minutes. Remove and set in a bowl. Return frying pan to the burner and heat 2 more tablespoons of olive oil. Saute the eggplant on medium heat for 4 minutes and then add the zuchini back to the pan. Sprinkle the thyme, 2 dashes of salt and pepper, and very gently, stir. Now add the zuchini and eggplant to the pot with the onions, add the saffron and parsley, and gently stir to incorporate all ingredients together as illustrated below. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook for about 25 minutes.
When finished cooking, taste for salt and pepper, and stir in the final 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Plate the Ratatouille in a heated presentation dish, along with sliced olive and garlic bread loaf. Finish off with a lightly tossed salad of greens. Ratatouille can be served chilled as a first course the next day, with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Either way, heated or chilled, this dish is wonderful. It makes a great entree for those of you that are vegetarian! Bon appetit!