Wednesday, October 10, 2012
It started off with a conversation, like it always does. One of my best friends, Sacha, remarked that he was off to make food. When asked what sort of food (yes, I'm nosy that way) he said, "Ratatouille." And that brought up a whole drift of memories from university overseas that revolved around this particular dish.
Sacha is Swiss-German. He spent most of his life shuttling between India and France, and is now mostly based in France, when he's not in the US. His father (who is of German descent, I believe) taught him this particular recipe - not that there were much in the way of proportions when Sacha taught it to me back in the day. They also cooked it in copper pots, and I haven't had, nor likely will have, copper pots, but it sure came out well in my beat-up soup pot that Sacha used to make it for me when he visited one Thanksgiving.
I've been ill and busy for the past few weeks and I haven't cooked ratatouille in a while, which is probably why it took hold of my mind like an obsession. And finally, two days after that conversation, I now have a tub of ratatouille sitting in my fridge quietly to mellow its flavours together - and it's just as good, if not better, than I remembered. I have no idea how traditional the recipe is, just that it's my friend's family recipe and that it holds many, many lovely memories for both of us, so any purists out there, please don't scream murder just yet. This is what I was taught, and this is what I remember. Everyone's got a food memory of that sort - even if it's your mother's cooking, right?
Comfort food. It's a beautiful thing.
Please be aware that eggplant tends to suck up oil worse than thirsty plant roots sucking up water. It's going to look as if there's not enough oil in the pot when you first start cooking up the eggplant, but it will regurgitate the oil later on during simmering time, I promise. DON'T add more oil at the beginning stages no matter how dry the pot looks or you'll wind up with a pool of it in the ratatouille later on - which you definitely don't want!
Also note that eggplants have a notorious tendency to turn to mush, and it will do so whenever you stir the ratatouille. Sacha says he's never been able to keep it from breaking up so much, so no worries if it does that during cooking - just as long as it doesn't turn into paste you're fine.
1 large eggplant, diced into cubes of about 1cm
1 medium to large zucchini, diced into cubes of about 1cm
2 capsicums, diced (or bell peppers), either 1 red and 1 yellow, or 1 red and 1 green, or…you get the idea
Several cloves garlic, smashed and roughly cut into large chunks
1 – 2 tbls olive oil
A shake of herbs de provence (I used fresh sage, rosemary and thyme)
Lemon juice, to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Heat olive oil on medium fire in a large, deep pot with a heavy base. Put diced eggplant in to sauté, till somewhat shrunken in capacity. You don’t want it to cook through totally, but it should be getting cooked – the colour change will alert you. Be careful however – the eggplant can stick to the pot bottom if you’re not careful so keep stirring.
2. Add in the diced zucchini and sauté together with the eggplant till the zucchini starts getting cooked.
3. Add in the diced capsicums and sauté together for about 1 minute. Stir well to make sure eggplant isn’t stuck to the bottom of the pot.
4. Put in your herbs, stir everything together, turn heat down to low. Cover the pot and let simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 30-45 minutes. Sacha says 45 minutes, but he usually makes a gigantic pot and this quantity is enough for about 1-2 people, so I capped mine at 30 minutes of simmering time since you don’t want everything to turn into a homogenous mass.
5. After 30-45 minutes (or sooner if you see your eggplant starting to turn to puree when you stir), turn off the fire and take pot off the stove to let sit for about 3-5 minutes to let it cool. Add salt to taste, and a squeeze of lemon juice, also to taste. The lemon juice is the magic ingredient here – it brightens the taste of the vegetables extraordinarily and makes the whole dish something really special. I used a few sprinkles of my Tuscan herb salt, but ordinary salt will do. Add a dash of freshly ground black pepper and mix everything up well.
6. You can now do one of two things: You can serve the ratatouille up right away, or you can let it sit overnight for the flavours to mature. Sacha’s family leaves it overnight and has it cold the next day, and I like it that way myself. If you want, you can heat it up too which should be just as good! I had some today on pasta and will leave the rest for tomorrow, but if you’re impatient and hungry, attack away. It is still really, really good.
Other (Less Crucial) Notes:
You want a good amount of eggplant in the ratatouille, as it tends to break up quite easily. It should be the main bulk of the dish, with the zucchini as a supplement. Also, zucchini doesn’t turn to mush as much as eggplant does.