Thursday, September 6, 2007


No, not the movie. There's been plenty written about the movie lately. This is the classic vegetable ragout more properly known as Ratatouille Nicoise, and perfect for this time of year, especially if you have all the vegetables growing in your garden.

But even if you don't, a trip to the farmers market and you will soon have one of the most succulent things that summer brings.

It seems generally agreed that a proper ratatouille should contain these vegetables: eggplant, red bell pepper, zucchini, onion, garlic and tomato. Yellow squash also is an option, and I've seen recipes from reputable authors also including green bell pepper, though to my mind the green pepper imparts a bit of harshness that the ratatouille can do without.

But where do we go from there? I have to admit, I'm no expert in ratatouille. Having made the dish a few times with my rudimentary understanding of it, I thought it was high time I boned up a little with some of my expert references. So there I sat this morning with my copy of Larousse Gastronomique, the Vegetables volume of the Time-Life series on French Food edited by Richard Olney, and volumes by Roger Verges and Madaleine Kamman.

As defined by Larousse, the word ratatouille derives from touiller, French for to mix or stir. It originates in Nice, but now is ubiquitous in the south of France. The method prefered by purists, according to Larousse, is to cook the vegetables individually in olive oil, slowly, before incorporating them in the final ragout.

Madeleine Kamman is her usual finicky and hilarious self. The vegetables should be cooked until very tender, "until there is only enough of the wonderful natural vegetable juices mixed together to coat them lightly." She continues: "If you want a crunchy ratatouille, then you don't want a ratatouille. Instead, take the same vegetables, less the eggplant, and make yourself a stir-fry."

Kamman also insists on two different kinds of tomatoes in her ratatouille, "the first for juice and sugar, the second for texture..."

I have been lightly browning my vegetables, draining them on paper towels, and then assembling them together at the end. But I think a classic ratatouille does not brown the vegetables in a skillet, but rather cooks them gently until tender in a covered heavy pot, even in the oven rather than on the stove-top.
Most instruct to skin and seed the tomatoes before chopping them, but I'm not sure that's essential either, unless you have a real problem with tomato skins, which are hardly detectable in the finished dish. As for herbs, I've been adding chopped basil and thyme, but the traditional recipes suggest a bouquet garni that is removed after the ragout is finished.

For four to six persons, figure a medium eggplant, a medium zucchini and one of yellow squash, a large red bell pepper, a yellow onion and a couple of cloves of garlic, chopped fine. The eggplant should be cut into large dice. The squashes can be cut into thin rounds, the bell pepper and onion into thin strips. Cook everything separately with salt and pepper until tender, then put everything together and bake with a bouquet garni or your favorite herbs in a 350-degree oven until the flavors are melded. Serve at room temperature with a grilled chicken or some such.

Bon appetit.


Rob said...

There's a free-form almost-a-recipe in one of MFK Fisher's books that's pretty much like this. She didn't brown the veggies either. Just sling everything into a heavy earthenware pot with herbs and a few generous glugs of olive oil, and stick it in a slow oven for a couple of hours till it looks like food. Cooking the vegetables separately gives you a more refined result, but what you get MFK's way is still damned yummy.

Joanna said...

I'd never heard of Madeleine Kamman, so found her schoolmarmish crossness hilarious. Actually, she's right about the two kinds of tomatoes - but it's not always possible, unless you're cooking for the photographer of your recipe book.

And FAR better to go with what's growing in the garden - that's authentic cookery


Ed Bruske said...

Rob, I have seen variations that call for tossing more than one vegetable in the pot at a time to cook. I think the different cooking times of the various vegetables involves are what have inspired that famous French fussiness. I'm sure it works just to throw everything into the pot and just cook it.

Joanna, Madaleine Kamman was Julia Child's fastidious French rival, never really happy that an American was teaching the world to cook French, and becoming a celebrity to boot. As you so amply illustrate, many people have never heard of Madaleine Kamman, who nonetheless has written some truly masterful cookbooks and really knows her stuff. She's a great reference. And I agree: whatever's in the garden rules.

Sara said...

Delicious! I know what I'm making tomorrow night. I had actually gone out of my way to find a recipe similar to the one that Rémy makes in the movie and found the French Laundry recipe online and it was delicious!!! (not exactly a ratatouille, as it turns out, but delicious nonetheless)

Ed Bruske said...

Sara, it's never too late to make ratatouille. I suspect anything from the French Laundry will tend to be a bit "different."

AJK said...

Nice Blog! I was looking for a Ratatouille recipe and came across your blog. I've just begun a journey towards a more self-sufficient lifestyle, and I try to blog about my progress, struggles and thoughts. Happy Cooking and Gardening!

Ed Bruske said...

Glad you were able to find us, Janice. You've got a great blog--love the list of resources.

hanum said...

great animation movie, more advice contained, delicious food. Good.. good..