Monday, April 7, 2008

CSA week 19 - ratatouille de Provence

Heavens, are there a variety of ratatouille recipes out there. Most times when I do my pre-cooking research I find two or three recipes cut and pasted all over the web (without proper attribution I might add). Not with ratatouille. With the exception of the (really cool) version created for the eponymous movie, every recipe I saw was different.

The recipes fell into two general categories with mention of a third version that nobody makes any more. Classically, you cook up eggplant, squash, peppers and tomatoes in four different pots and then combine them once they're each done just right. I haven't the pots, burners or patience to do that. The standard version is to simmer the eggplant, squash and peppers all together, adding the tomatoes late. And then there's the roasted variant where you lay the four vegetables out on a baking dish and stick them in the oven. That last one was tempting, but I decided that it wasn't really a proper ratatouille and for my first try at the dish I wanted to not stray too far from the Platonic form.

But even within that general description no two recipes agreed on the ratio of the various vegetables, the cooking times or the details of the seasoning. In the end, I settled on two different particularly interesting recipes to work with. This one that added niçoise olives, Dijon mustard, red wine and herbes de Provence for a distinctly regional flavor, and this one for it's methodical, lab-tested procedure. I recommend checking out the Cooking for Engineers website in general when puzzling out a new dish. Along with Alton Brown's oeuvre and McGee's On Food and Cooking, it's a great resource for cutting through the kitchen lore to what you really need to do to make the recipe work. For instance, there was no salting and purging the eggplant as many recipes reflexively call for; doing that helps the eggplant stay firm which I didn't want and doesn't really do anything to cut bitterness which modern varieties of eggplant don't suffer from anyway (unless you buy the really old spongy ones which you should know better than to do).

I split the difference between the two recipes and came up with a trick of my own. I decided that the tomatoes from our share were too nice to cook so I used canned tomatoes and boosted the flavor with tomato paste. One other thing I learned that all the recipes agreed on was that there's no such thing as too much ratatouille so I used as much vegetation as could fit in my dutch oven. Most recipes use more eggplant than squash so I went with that and then used both bell peppers I had bought. The 14 oz can of tomatoes seems standard for the dishes that use canned I didn't use one of my 28 oz cans of fire-roasted tomatoes which is a shame as that would have added some nice extra flavor.

Here's what I ended up with:

1/4 cup EV olive oil
6 garlic cloves, sliced thin
1 medium onion, sliced thin
1 Tablespoon tomato paste
1 14 oz can chopped tomatoes in juice, with tomatoes and juice separated. Squeeze the tomatoes a bit to get 2/3 cup of juice total
1 large eggplant, 1 inch cubes
2 small or 1 large summer squash (about half the weight of the eggplant), 1 inch cubes
1 red bell pepper, 1 inch pieces
1 green bell pepper, 1 inch pieces
1/2 cup dry red wine (something Provencal preferably, of course)
1/2 cup pitted niçoise olives (which I had to pit myself I'd like to point out)
2 Tablespoons herbs de Provence (from Spice House)
2 Tablespoons Dijon mustard (Dijon isn't particularly near Provence. If you can find Provencal mustard, use that instead.)
fresh thyme, parsley and basil
salt and pepper to taste (more than you think you need, probably)

1. Heat olive oil on medium high heat in large pot or dutch oven. Add garlic before it's fully up to sizzling temperature to ensure it doesn't burn. When it becomes aromatic add the onion and fry until onion is softened and slightly browned, around 10 minutes.

2. Stir in tomato paste and cook briefly. Add tomato juice, scrape up any browned bits. Add eggplant, squash and peppers. Stir well and cook for 10 minutes stirring occasionally.

3. Add tomatoes, mustard, wine, olives, herbs, salt and pepper. Stir well and cook for 15 minutes stirring occasionally until most of the liquid has evaporated, the peppers are just done, the eggplant is starting to get a bit mushy and squash, tomatoes and onions have completely disintegrated. (A lot of recipes call for longer cooking times and a big bowl of mush. Do what you like. You might even start the peppers first so they don't end up so much firmer than the other vegetables.)

4. Adjust seasonings and serve.

There. It's pretty easy when you hide all the chopping in the ingredient list.

And the end result? It's eggplant, squash, tomatoes and peppers; if you like them, you'll like this. Actually, I don't overmuch, but the wine, olives and mustard do add some complexity and I'm finding (as I think many have) that ratatouille is compulsive eating (possibly because the lack of protein makes it not terribly satisfying). It's supposed to be better tomorrow, which makes good sense for a stew like this, good with eggs and good cold with hearty bread. I'll add an addendum when I give that a try.
OK, it's Wednesday now and I had some cold ratatouille for lunch. First off, the flavor was better at room temperature than refrigerator temperature to my mind. Second, the flavors continued to meld and change over time. Yesterday the mustard flavor was a bit too strong when the ratatouille was cold, but today it's retreated a bit into the flavor mix. There's just enough background flavors from the herbs and mustard to keep the vegetables subtly French. That was my main goal in including them in the first place as these particular vegetables could easily be in an Italian dish and that's not what I was aiming at. So, on the whole I'm pleased. Now I just need to see how well it survives freezing.

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