2006August02 The one universal almost foolproof recipe for ratatouille (Provençal vegetable stew)

Approximate Reading Time: 14 minutes

Ratatouille is one of the many recipes native to this region—and in saying this, as when I say so many things, I cut a wide swath—by which I mean to include any definition of the south of France called Provence, and Nice. The French nicely separate Provence from the Côte d’Azur, of which Nice is the undisputable capital. Our chief agency for France Telecom, for example is in Nice, and it is the office for all telephone business in Provence-Côte d’Azur, part of the official name. Same goes for our branch, and the larger managing office, for our bank, Crédit-Agricole, one of the largest banks in Europe, and the largest mortgage holder in France—it’s C-A/PACA, and now you know what “PCA” stands for, when you see it. In fact, officially, the region subsumed is referred to as Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, but usually the Alpes are left out of it (except in the case of the bank).

It’s my theory that it’s intrinsic in any organizing scheme or management scheme in France that things are viewed in this departmental way. Ultimately, of course, all things flow from Paris, and the central government. It is through and through, administratively, a federalized bureaucracy. France is a big country, however, and hard to govern. It’s not only the largest, or close to it (I simply won’t look it up on-line—not while FT/PCA has us in a holding pattern with regard to the Internet, and our connectivity is dial-up; besides Linda is on the phone, so I can’t use it anyway—and I don’t want the readers here, those even more obsessive than I, and who ache for the chance to tell me I’m wrong about something, to have that chance), sovereign land area in Europe, with one of the largest populations. It not only has one of the largest GNPs of the EU, and one of the largest federal budgets. But it produces umpteen many different cheeses, even more now than when Degaulle made his famous comment about the ungovernability of this country, purely in terms of the number of cheeses it produced.

All moneys come from the central government, but increasingly are not only distributed, but budgeted at the prefectual level. The prefect is the highest government officer in any department. There are 95 departments, or so (there’s that hedge again) in Metropolitan France, that is, what we’d call mainland France, as opposed to the islands in the Caribbean, which are not protectorates, or territories, or any of that wishy-washy stuff, that leaves them nominally (at least) subjugated. When you’re on French soil in Guadeloupe, or in the French Pacific islands, you are on French soil, and subject to French taxes and the entirety of the Napoleonic Code.

That’s a fairly far-flung way of keeping track of things, especially money, when it flows from a single source. It tends to force a people who grow up thinking of themselves first and foremost as French, immediately to think about themselves next in terms of that ineffable, rich French word, terroir, which is essentially untranslatable readily into English.

A French-English dictionary may translate it as “region,” but that’s not adequate, because terroir can be understood sometimes with the same degree of fineness as a micro-climate. It really refers to some unique combination of factors—some incontrovertible, like the chemical composition of the soil, and some more subtle, like the difference between a cheese distinguished by one form of mold (we’re talking blue cheeses; so don’t let your gorge rise) versus another, possibly identical to the untutored palate, with a slightly different mold.

Not all differences are chemical, of course, except possibly in the metaphorical sense. The chemistry is different in one terroir versus another, and it leads to differences in speech, differences in dress, and particularly differences in food, both the native flora and fauna to a terroir, and the ingredients that go into exactly the same dish—exactly the same at least in name. Terroir is the major taxonomical differentiator, I would say, in determining one AOC wine or cheese from another. May be the same mix of grape varieties, but it produces a different wine when the grapes come from one hillside (côte in French) as opposed to another. So there is Côteaux Varois, but there is also Côtes de Provence.

There are five departments in Provence, and the cuisine of most of them—excluding pretty much Les Alpes de Haute Provence, which is one of the two landlocked departments, the other being the Vaucluse—is what comprises what has become known as the essentially heart-healthy, longevity inducing Mediterranean diet of Provence and neighboring Liguria, the section of Italy immediately contiguous and also with a long coast, or riviera, on the ocean. Much of Ligurian cuisine migrated and mingled and became transformed to a variant called Niçois, which the natives of that city (for so long ruled by others than the French; it was Italian, it was Savoyard (named for the mountainous region, now in France, known as the Savoie)) will tell you is not Italian, though it features many pasta dishes, and, as one small example, a basil sauce called pistou, and which, with a little jiggering and the addition of another ingredient or two, becomes what we know as the ambrosial pesto of Liguria. But it’s not the same.

And in the same way, to move rapidly to the opposite end of Provence, the western end, which borders near Marseille on the Mediterranean, there are differences, matters of terroir, between what is called bouillabaise in Marseille, which is located in the department called the Bouches de Rhône (the “mouths of the Rhone,” a major river debouching into the Mediterranean Sea in a delta surrounding Marseille), and what is called bouillabaise in a little seaside resort town called Cassis, about ten kilometers east of Marseille, but in the department called the Var (which also happens to be where we are located). There are terrible arguments about the right constituents of a true bouillabaise, which fishes go into it, whether potatoes are part of the dish, how it is served, etc. There is even an official society of bouillabaise makers, represented by any number of restaurants serving the dish in Provence, and none of them serve it the same way. In this, we see the chief, and chiefly benign, manifestation of the concept of terroir.

I guess if forced to some up with a one-word translation it would be “turf” in the sense that gangs, at least, used to use that word in major American cities, back in the 40s, 50s and 60s. Distinguishable, inviolate, and ingrained, though with none of the political motive inherent in the ways gangs used the term.

So, what does all this have to do with ratatouille, that ineluctably wonderful vegetable stew indigenous to Provence, and possibly the apotheosis, in vegetal terms, of what Provençal cuisine is all about?

Without all the brouhaha that surrounds bouillabaise (and which gets its energy—the brouhaha, that is—no doubt from the money involved, as a dish of bouillabaise, often mandated in a restaurant as a dish to be ordered only for two persons, can cost as much as 160 euros for a serving; it is labor intensive, and tricky, and must be made from scratch to order, and has a number of constituent parts, is served in two courses, and involves some very expensive species of Mediterranean fishes), ratatouille also has its terroir influenced variations. But it is mainly a homely dish. More often than not served as a garnish to a fish or flesh main dish, though Linda and I just recently feasted on a huge helping of freshly made ratatouille served over a steaming mound of semoule (that is, couscous), and that was dinner.

I like to make ratatouille at least once, or twice a visit. And even the meager proportions of the recipe to follow (it’s coming, trust me), guarantees leftovers for at least two more meals, even if one of them is only lunch, with smaller portions to go around. For one thing, ratatouille is a dish best served, unlike Sicilian revenge, not only hot, but cold, or at room temperature, which has a lot to say for it.

There is a kind of basic list of ingredients, and it reads like the ur-definition of the Provençal or Mediterranean diet. It almost always includes zucchini, onions, eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers. It is invariably made with olive oil, lots of olive oil, in which it is stewed. What I will tell you is you can add, within a fairly broad band of extras, just about anything you want, to push the flavor of the thing in one direction or another, grossly or subtly.

I like piquancy, and I like that so-called “fifth taste” called umami, so those are the variants I will include with the basic recipe I’ve contrived.

Those who know me, and know my cooking, know that I work as much as possible from scratch (but don’t be surprised to see some canned ingredients here; I’ll also include a way to be a little more pure, if you are even nuttier than I am, and must do virtually everything from the raw ingredients). When I say contrived, I mean that.

A long time ago, as is always the case when I am cooking something I have never cooked before, and often never eaten before (one of the “joys of cooking” is not reading recipes out of that horrendous collection—revered as it may be; salvation as it may have been to so many neophyte cooks; one of the joys of cooking is deconstructing a dish one has been served, without help, but with one’s analytic skills alone, and figuring out how to replicate it, or at least come up with an acceptable personal variation), a long time ago, probably very long, I read a recipe or two for ratatouille. After that, I’ve always winged it, and I cannot tell you how much is a vestigial remnant of some original recipe, which may have come from Julia Child, or from Larousse—two favorite sources from the period I would have first attempted a ratatouille, probably back in the 70s.

Further, here in Provence, where the ingredients in the summer are always local and always to hand, it’s much easier to just take the best of what looks good at the greengrocer at marché. The other requirement is to make sure the larder or pantry is stocked with at least a few basics that should always be on hand when cooking Provençal.

So the bottom line is, as I head into the recipe proper, this is a very localized version of ratatouille. Localized not only to the Var, not only to the Haut Var on whose edge our village sits, not only to our village (though nobody in the village has anything to do with the genesis of this recipe, but not a few have tasted it), but it’s localized chez nous, to our house… and I say that with neither defiance nor shame.

Universal Almost Foolproof Ratatouille (Provençal Vegetable Stew)

What I think you should have in your larder or pantry (especially if you’re cooking Provençal):

Pepper grinder (with black peppercorns—and, if gilding the lily, another with white, though white peppercorns have a different flavor and less bite and heat; the difference is not only on the palate, obviously, but esthetic, unless you don’t mind the color of pepper, even in a white sauce; personally I don’t mind at all, and it’s a pain to keep white peppercorns on hand)

Sea salt, preferably French, preferably Atlantic: mild, and generally in coarse medium-sized crystals

Green peppercorns, usually in a dilute vinegar solution

Capers

Tinned anchovies in olive oil, flat filets and/or flat fillets in salt, either tinned or in a jar

Tomato paste (or as they say in Europe “double concentrated”)

Whole Roma tomatoes, skinned, in their own juice, tinned—one can that has a gross weight of a pound will suffice; if you’re a purist, or prefer fresh ingredients, and you can obtain really good tasting Roma tomatoes, skin and seed about eight or nine medium sized fresh Roma tomatoes and chop very coarsely, and add to the recipe where stated as indicated for the tinned tomatoes

Fresh garlic, whole heads

Yellow onions, either medium or large

Harissa, which is a very hot Tunisian or Moroccan condiment, made mainly from pépins, which are quite hot fresh red peppers, perhaps like serrano, though hotter, and certainly hotter than jalapeño; there are recipes for making your own, but it’s a lot of work—hit the local Middle Eastern market, especially if they make their own (we buy ours in Aups from Chantal, the Olive Lady); it’s also sold under different brands in the foreign food sections of many American markets, either in tins or in tubes. Use it up, or throw it out; it loses its heat, efficacy and flavor very soon after opening.

Cremini mushrooms, medium sized.

Chicken stock, and/or vegetable stock.

Here’s definitely what you’ll need for the ratatouille:

Two medium Italian eggplants (these are smaller variety than the monsters usually sold in the U.S.; I also think they’re more flavorful, easier to work with, and less woody)

Two medium zucchini

Two large red Bell peppers (I wish I could import the local ones that are available everywhere here, even in supermarkets; so much more flavorful, with a musky peppery perfume that you rarely experience in the U.S.)

Celery, in a bunch; you’ll need one stalk of a large-sized bunch

Small amount, say 1/2 cup, of French rosé or white wine; if you use white, you can use a California or Italian dry white

Vodka

The trick, and the heartache, of this recipe is that you more or less sauté each ingredient separately, store it in a bowl along with the other ingredients to be returned to the sauce pan for final cooking.

Chop one medium to large yellow onion. (with this step and from here on, the directions and the measurements are coarse and approximate at best; if you really need precise measurements, this recipe, and most of my others, are not for you)

Slice at least two large cloves of garlic very thin, as if with a razor. The more garlic the better as far as I’m concerned, but two large cloves are minimal. Chop the slices coarsely.

De-stem and skin the eggplants, and slice into 1/2 inch slices. Line a colander with the one layer of slices, salt that layer generously, and flip the slices and salt again, add another layer, salt that layer on the exposed surfaces, and keep layering in this fashion until you’ve added all the eggplant slices. Cover the last layer with two thicknesses of paper towel, making sure the toweling clings to the surface. Let sit for at least 20 minutes, and no more than a half hour.

Skin the zucchinis. What I like to do with zucchini is to cut it into uneven polyhedrons, not bigger than about 3/4 to one inch in any dimension. This means cutting the zucchini along its length at acute angles, rotating it as you cut, forming these odd shaped objects with many surfaces at varying angles to one another. It’s the closest you’ll come to making round balls out of them, without making yourself crazy.

Cut the stem out of each of the red peppers. Cut each pepper in half, and with a very sharp paring knife, cut away all the whitish pith from the inside. Rinse each half of the peppers under running cold water to get rid of all seeds. With a very sharp knife, cut each half of the peppers into long strips about 3/8 of an inch wide. When all halves are in strips, cut all strips in half width-wise.

Take one stalk of celery (or more, if you really like celery, or none if you don’t) and cut into half-inch slices.

With the mushrooms, again, you’re dealing with an optional ingredient. Use at least a cup and-a-half, but no more than two cups. Cut off the stems, and cut the larger heads in half, or more parts than that if they’re monsters.

Keep each of these ingredients in its own bowl, ready to toss into the sauce pan. Have a large stainless or ceramic bowl handy to accept the cooked vegetables as you finish them.

For each of these ingredients, you will need one to two tablespoons of olive oil for each batch, except the eggplant, which will require three or four, and the mushrooms, which will require four or five. These last two are sponges for oil. The mushrooms will give up whatever oil they absorb once cooked, however, so don’t go crazy with the oil.

Heat the sauce pan (medium sized, probably at least six quart, with a cover) over medium to medium-high heat, depending on the efficiency of your stove’s burner. If it’s a “professional home” stove, use a proportionately lower flame—15,000 BTU burners and higher get quite hot. Add one to two tablespoons of oil while it’s heating up and when the surface of the oil shows it’s hot—it gets kind of roiled, as if a slight wind were blowing across still water—add the onions and garlic and toss, or if you’re not adapt at tossing things in a pan, use a wooden flat bladed spatula to constantly move the ingredients around and get everything coated with oil. Toss occasionally, or mix with the spatula, the onions and garlic should turn translucent and begin to brown around the edges. Probably five minutes of active movement cooking will be enough.

Dump the onions and garlic into the large bowl.

One or two more tablespoons of oil, and once it’s hot, toss in the zucchini. Same deal, only it won’t get translucent, but will soften slightly. The browning is more important. Don’t let it burn, but make sure it browns.

While the zucchini is cooking, remove the paper towel, now soaked with liquid from the eggplant, and rinse the eggplant in cold water. Rinse off all the salt. Keep your eye on the zucchini. Pat dry the eggplant.

While the zucchini continues to cook, cut the eggplant slices into 1/2 inch dice.

When the zucchini is done, dump it into the bowl with the onions and garlic.

Add three to four tablespoons of oil to the pan and when it’s hot, add the eggplant. It will soften and get brown, but keep it moving, little enough to brown, but enough to keep from burning. When it’s done, add to the bowl with the other cooked ingredients.

Add two tablespoons of olive oil to the pan and heat it, and add all the pepper strips. Brown them lightly. Don’t let them get overly limp. Add the cooked peppers to the other ingredients in the bowl.

Cook the optional celery, if desired, with a little oil (even less than the onions), and when lightly browned, add to the other cooked ingredients.

Use four or five tablespoons of olive and heat it for the optional mushrooms, add these to the hot oil and toss constantly. They will first absorb the oil and then begin to brown and then release the oil. With a slotted spoon or drainer, remove the mushrooms and add to the other ingredients once the mushrooms are browned. Don’t let the mushrooms get soft.

If there’s an appreciable amount of oil, say more than a tablespoon, in the pan after removing the mushrooms, drain the excess oil, and return the pan to the stove. The pan should be well coated with a dark brown fond from all the vegetables you’ve cooked in it. Heat the pan, but don’t let it smoke, and add the wine and a splash or two of vodka. You may also add some chicken stock, or vegetable stock, if you’re a purist, as much as 1/4 to 1/2 cup. Turn the heat to high and let the liquids boil rapidly and while they do, scrape the fond from the surfaces of the pan with a flat wooden spatula.

When the liquids have reduced to a very thick syrup, dump the can of tomatoes and their juices into the pan. Leave the heat on high. Mash the tomatoes with the flat blade of the spatula, and get the liquid boiling. Add a couple of pinches of salt and a few grinds of fresh pepper. Turn down the heat to medium, and add the cooked vegetables.

Then add from two to four tablespoons of tomato paste. It’s packed in very small cans in Europe. They’re about two-ounce cans. I add the whole can, scraping out all of it with a silicone rubber spatula.

While the vegetables heat up again (and keep an eye on the pan while you do this) drain the tinned anchovies, and dump the anchovy fillets into a mortar and pestle. If you use salted filets, rinse them thoroughly, shake them dry and dump these into the mortar and pestle. With some force, grind the anchovies into a paste. Do it thoroughly.

Once you have your anchovy paste, dump it into the sauce pan. Add from 1/2 teaspoon to 1-1/2 teaspoons—depending on the volume of vegetables, which is a function of whether you added the celery and or mushrooms—of the harissa to the mix, and blend thoroughly. (Warning: harissa is a very hot condiment; if you’re a spice-a-phobe, don’t add any; and if you do add it, in any amount, don’t blame me if you know what…) You may also add green peppercorns at this time and/or capers, depending on your preference, and the degree of piquancy you like in your ratatouille.

Stir occasionally, and when the whole thing is bubbling, reduce heat to medium-low or low, depending on your stove, cover to keep a simmer, and simmer for at least 10 minutes and probably no more than 20. Stir occasionally. Taste and add salt and pepper if required. Probably not.

Serve very hot over your choice of couscous, or polenta, or rice, or by itself as a side dish.

Can be kept refrigerated for up to a week. If preferred hot, reheat only to the point of serving temperature. Otherwise it’s perfectly good cold or at room temperature.

This is only a basic recipe, remember, so be inventive or experimental.

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