I’ve been reading Julia Child’s My Life in France and the difficulties she faced trying to publish Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In 1959, when Houghton Mifflin finally passed on the book, and before Knopf picked it up, Julia read a note from her champion at Houghton who explained the rejection, “They feel [the average housewife] wants ‘shortcuts to something equivalent’ instead of the perfect process to the absolute.”
America’s culture has changed a lot since then, but anyone who reads Simone de Beauvoir’s 1947 America Day by Day will be struck by how much has remained consistent. The business instincts of the Houghton execs remains somewhat true today if Rachel Ray’s empire is any evidence. Thankfully, there is room for more ambitious efforts, as Julia Child and Simone Beck proved and as new author/chefs continue to show; a recent example is Paul Bertolli’s almost literary Cooking by Hand.
Ratatouille strikes me as a perfect dish to highlight the merits of the two mindsets (and there are indeed merits to both). Sometimes I will throw together a ratatouille very quickly, let all the components stew together for a while unaided, and enjoy a perfectly good rendition. However, with a little more effort and time, you can take the dish to a different level entirely.
On Friday evening, after picking up some lovely fresh vegetables from the local farm, I rolled up my sleeves and put together an adaptation of Lulu Peyraud’s ratatouille from Richard Olney’s cookbook Lulu’s Provencal Table. It is considerably more involved than my usual, but the result, which we ate the next evening, was the sweetest, most delicious ratatouille I have had in a long while.
Ratatouille, adapted from Richard Olney and Lulu Peyraud’s recipe
1 lb vidalia onion, halved then thinly sliced
6 garlic cloves, lightly crushed, peeled and minced
1 lb zucchini, preferably small to medium sized, quartered and cut into 3/4 inch pieces
1 lb young eggplant, preferably Asian/Japanese (unless you are French), halved if large, and cut into 3/4 inch rounds
1 lb plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and cut into eighths
3 large sweet peppers (a mix of colors is nice; I used 2 red, 1 green), treatment below
Bouquet garni of 2 small sprigs each of oregano and winter savory, and 2 bay leaves, tied with kitchen string
In a large pot, warm up 3 tbsp of olive oil on very low heat and slowly cook the onions for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add 1 tsp of salt (I like cooking with kosher salt), the minced garlic, and the sliced zucchini. Continue to cook on the low heat, stirring occasionally.
While your onions cook, peel and de-seed the tomatoes. To peel the tomatoes, score an X in the skin on the bottom of the tomato, and place in boiling water for 30 seconds. Let cool, and the skin should slip off quite easily. Slice in half (if the tomato was the earth, and the stem is the north pole, cut at the equator) and use a finger to remove most of the seeds. Chop each tomato into 8 chunks and reserve.
Char your sweet peppers under the boiler, on the grill, or directly on a gas flame (Lulu’s method is to char over wood embers, but not everyone has that luxury). Place the peppers in a paper bag and let cool for several minutes. Peel of the charred skins, and de-seed, being careful to preserve the juices from the inside of the peppers. Reserve those juices (sans seeds), and slice the peppers lengthwise into narrow strips; reserve.
In a large, heavy-bottomed skillet, heat up 2 tbsp of olive oil on medium heat. Saute the eggplant rounds (or pieces) on one side for a couple of minutes, sprinkling half a teaspoon of salt on top, then add another 1 or 2 tbsp of olive oil and flip the eggplant and cook the other side for several minutes until they are softened. I add the oil in two steps so that one side of the eggplant doesn’t absorb it all. Add the eggplant to the stew pot with the onions, leaving remaining oil in the skillet.
If the skillet is fairly dry, add another tbsp of olive oil, get the pan fairly hot with high heat, and then add the tomatoes and half a teaspoon of salt. Saute, shaking the pan and stirring the tomatoes until much of the liquid has evaporated, but before the tomatoes disintegrate. Empty the skillet into the stew pot.
Add the peppers and the reserved juices, and immerse the bouquet garnis.
Cook at a low simmer, uncovered, for 2 hours stirring occasionally and lowering the heat as the liquid reduces. Cook until all the excess liquid has evaporated and the vegetables are covered in a syrupy sauce.
Remove from the heat, taste for salt and stir in a little pepper. Let cool, and then refridgerate overnight. Let the ratatouille come to room temperature the next day before serving.
Additional Lulu ideas: stir in some pitted black olives, some diced celery, and/or some more olive oil right before serving.