Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Tale of Two Ratatouilles

Last year a friend gave a tomato tasting party. I foolishly volunteered to make a ratatouille so we could taste his tomatoes both raw and cooked. The mid-August date was selected to be sure the tomatoes would have had plenty of sun. A few days before the event, we picked 16 pounds of his ripest tomatoes and 16 pounds of his zucchini (which were large enough to win prizes at state fairs). For those who don’t recall,  let me refresh your memory about the weather last August.  We had rain and/or clouds for the first two weeks, which did not bode well for the taste of our fresh tomatoes. The ratatouille was a great disappointment.  I decided to let the flavors mellow overnight, when I tasted it he next morning I declared it was “not bad.” “‘Not bad?’ asked Gerard incredulously. “You can’t bring ‘not bad.’ You are a food editor. It has to be wonderful.” I knew he was right.  So we went shopping and started over with tomatoes that were not so local that they had had no sun and found zucchini that were small and concentrated with flavor. From this we produced a damn good ratatouille.

At the party one of the women at my table raved about the dish. I thanked her and gave credit to Patricia Wells, the cookbook author whose recipe I had followed.  “But her recipes are so ‘iffy,’” she said. I retorted, “That is probably because she lives in Provence, where the vegetables are so full of flavor that it takes little cooking to turn out something wonderful,” and realized the wisdom of my own words.    The gentleman to my left added, “My wife liked your dish.”  I thanked him and nodded.  “Ah—you do not know who she is or what she does?” I slowly shook my head. “She is Dana Cowin, editor in chief of Food & Wine magazine.” “Thank you, Gerard,” I thought. “Good thing I did not bring the first batch!”.

I was reminded of this story because this weekend, I made that recipe again. And again it was not very good. The tomatoes, although “good,” just did not have the great taste required for this recipe. So the next morning, I added the other vegetables, as described in the traditional recipe below, and it was lovely. The lesson is, of course, what I had said without thinking. When the tomatoes are GREAT in flavor, they do not need much, and the rapid ratatouille recipe is perfect. If the tomatoes are just “good,” they need the onions, peppers, and eggplant to add flavor: a lesson so simple one wonders why I had not realized it before.

Speedy Ratatouille  Serves 6–8
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds, or about 10 small, very fresh unpeeled zucchini, washed and thinly sliced
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves,
Sea salt
3 plump, fresh cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 pounds fresh tomatoes (plum are best), cored, peeled, seeded and chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 teaspoons best-quality red wine vinegar
In a very large skillet over moderately high heat, heat the olive oil until hot but not smoking. Add the zucchini and 1 teaspoon of thyme leaves. Sauté, shaking the pan from time to time until the zucchini is just beginning to brown (about five minutes). Add the salt and garlic, stir, and cook for a minute or two. (The salt will cause the zucchini to give off liquid, which will prevent the garlic from burning.) Add tomatoes, tomato paste and vinegar, and continue to sauté, shaking the pan until all of the ingredients blend well and most of the liquid is absorbed (about ten minutes). Add  remaining thyme and serve.  


Traditional Ratatouille  Serves 6–8

1/2 cup olive oil

2 onions, sliced into thin rings
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 pounds, or about 10, small, very fresh unpeeled zucchini, washed and cut into very thin slices
1 medium eggplant, cubed
3 bell peppers, seeded and sliced very thick
Salt and pepper to taste
1 bay leaf
4 sprigs fresh thyme
2 pounds fresh tomatoes, cored, peeled, seeded and chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley


Heat 1½ tablespoons of the oil in a large pot over medium-low heat. Add onions and garlic and cook until soft. In a large skillet, heat 1½ tablespoon of oil and sauté the zucchini in batches until slightly browned on all sides. Remove zucchini and place in the pot with onions and garlic. Sauté bell peppers and eggplant one batch at a time, adding 1½ tablespoons oil to the skillet for each. Add each batch once sautéed  to the large pot. Add salt, pepper, bay leaf and thyme and cover the pot. Cook over medium heat for 15 to 20 minutes.
Add chopped tomatoes and parsley and cook another 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the bay leaf before serving.

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