Wisdom garnered from the tradition of slow cooking:
There is wisdom in this traditional method. It isn’t rocket science to understand, but like all truths, it is profound once you “get it.” This slow method of making Ratatouille is intimate and deeply loving. Why? Because it requires time, presence, and patience.
Via this slow cooking method I was lured to relate with my food. I was truly present for the alchemy. I don’t think you can prepare something this slowly and attentively and NOT want everyone to eat it slowly to savoir it. And boy did we!
So dear readers, I invite you to go on vacation for a day this summer. Stay home. Put on the music, pour a glass of wine (if you enjoy it) and invite a few beloved friends or family over. Make Ratatouille together, dine al fresco for HOURS, and rejoice in being alive.
I eat, therefore I cook.
I’ve been cooking for decades, enjoyably and with ease. But little did I suspect that I was in for such a revelation when I began to make Ratatouille - the traditional way - this past Sunday night, in preparation for my Summer Meatless Monday dinner/class the following day.
Ratatouille is a Mediterranean summer harvest made from eggplant, tomato, zucchini, onion, and bell peppers. I’ve always made my own version with my summer harvest vegetables – ad hoc – using my garden bounty: tomatoes, zucchini and yellow patty pan squashes, fresh basil and lemon thyme. I’d just sauté everything altogether (with purchased eggplant, peppers and Vidalia onion)… and of course, it was delicious, and fairly quick.
But I was curious this time, and for the fun of it, began doing some research on various Ratatouille recipes. Though it looked great, I didn’t want to try the “fan” method of Ratatouille, as prepared by “Little Chef” in the movie Ratatouille.
Inevitably, my research led me to the Master – Julia Child. While I don’t own any of her recipe books, I quickly discovered from various websites that her recipe was considered the Cadillac of Ratatouilles. What’s most amazing is that other than a little fresh garlic, her traditional recipe uses only parsley, salt and pepper – no other herbs or seasonings.
It turns out that if you take the time to prepare Ratatouille the traditional way, you are rewarded with the most heavenly delectable feast of summer sweetness, with each vegetable maintaining its integrity, yet commingled into a surprisingly complex and fulfilling burst of flavor. ”Your entire home will smell of the essence of Provence…” according to Julia Child, and boy was she right!
So I decided to make four times her recipe, which called for 1 lb. each of zucchini, eggplant and tomatoes, after all, I was cooking for 9 and wanted quarts of leftovers for everyone. (Quarts for everyone – was I nuts? This wasn’t soup! It wouldn’t make quarts of leftovers! I was glad to have the 1 ½ quarts I put aside for myself, and a mere 1 ½ quarts to split amongst 3 people.)
Well here are the 15 lbs. of vegetables I began with. I deviated a drop and included my beautiful CSA patty pan and yellow squashes for beauty sake, as well as yellow and orange bell peppers.
4:45 PM: I begin peeling and cutting the eggplant. The slices should be 3/8”thick, 3” long, & 1”wide. I likely would have cubed everything or cut it chunky if I did it my way, but it dawned on me that this specific cut is about surface area exposure!
If you’ve ever cooked eggplant you’re likely familiar with the salting and sweating method of preparing it to remove the bitterness. Julia’s recipe called for doing that to the zucchini as well (I never heard of that for zucchini) for 30 minutes, thereby heightening and locking in the essence of zucchini flavor (I surmise) by removing its excess water.
Now the sautéing, one layer deep at a time in just enough hot olive oil for a few minutes on each side to brown VERY lightly. Oy, this took a little while!
I had two hot 12” cast iron pans going, on low, so nothing would burn. Nothing else mattered in the world to me except lightly browned eggplant.
6:15 PM: Great music blasting in the kitchen, opened my first cold Corona with double limes… it was hot out, and nicely warm inside. Onto the zucchini. Same process.
7 PM: Time to start the onions, cutting and then sautéing slowly so they soften but don’t brown! Then add the peppers and garlic.
7:30 PM: Oops – dance break in the kitchen as music inspires me!
8 PM: Boil soup pot of water for 2 batches of tomatoes. Score and plunge 4 lbs. of tomatoes, cool in colander and transfer to cutting board. Behold the beauty, I’m in the moment. (I remember to take the picture.)
8:30 PM: Open 2nd Corona with double limes. It’s a little warmer inside now. I’m happy, everything is looking beautiful. On to coring and seeding the tomatoes! BTW – they also get sliced 3/8” thick, 1” wide, 3” long. (I’ve never made homemade tomato sauce, I’m thinking it’s similar to this experience.) The jelly and seeds are out, yet the tomatoes are plump and full. I’ve cut them into fat strips.
8:50 PM: Add the tomatoes to the onions and peppers. Tuck my renegade bay leaf and lemon thyme (5 mere sprigs per pan… just because it came from my garden) into the tomatoes. Cover and cook for 5 or so minutes until tomatoes release their juices. (Juice? I thought I took out the juice with the jelly? But alas, they really let go.)
9:00 PM: The final frontier: assembling the casserole for the “brief communal simmer.” (I need all 3 of my 12” skillets for this, and am grateful for my 5 burner stove top.) Remove 2/3rds of the onions and tomatoes (to be used in the layering of vegetables) leaving 1 thin layer as the base.
9:15 PM: Sprinkle chopped parsley, then layer up all ingredients, 5 layers deep! Cover and simmer over LOW heat for 10 minutes. Uncover, and baste with the rendered juices. (Juice! It just keeps coming, sweetly… so sweetly when you cook slowly.) It is done when the juices have evaporated leaving a spoonful or two of flavored olive oil.
9:45 PM: I behold:
I am elated. This was a magnificent experience, more surprising than baking bread from scratch. It tasted truly divine. My entire house smelled like a slow cooked summer garden for 24 hours. Never in my life have I had ratatouille this incredible.
I wish you bon appétit.