ratatouille philosophies

Strictly spoken, this blog is not for recipes. There are gazillions of recipes out there, what do I have to contribute? But I will here make half an exception. I am copying a Ratatouille approach from my private recipe collection, because our last batch of this dish gave me reason for additional musings.

I once asked a French flute player about her way of making Ratatouille. She could report nothing very remarkable except for the addition of a “ridiculous amount of herbs.” I’m sure that there are, in the minds of more dedicated Provencale cooks, dozens of rather more differentiated One-And-Only ways of making this dish, but her laissez-faire attitude makes me feel secure when presenting my method.

The first thing to consider is the cooking fat: I use a mix of butter and good olive oil, which is perhaps less healthy but tastier than just olive oil. For 1 eggplant, 1 green squash, 1 onion, 1-2 peppers (red or green, or both, whatever you like) and 2-3 tomatoes, one would need at least 4 tablespoons of cooking fat, or, rather, up to twice as much.
The vegetables are cubed into not too big and not too small bits, the onion chopped, 2-4 cloves of garlic peeled and chopped; a tablespoonful or so of black olives (not the Pitiful Pitless kind) is impatiently waiting at the side.
I choose a heavy pot and slowly heat the oil/butter mix until the butter foam subsides – until after the second time the butter develops foam, to be precise.
The frying capacities of the vegetables dictate the order of their being added to the fat. One needs to understand that we have to handle, regarding their cooking behavior, four categories of vegetables: the ones that cook fast and have a tendency to brown when put into frying fat; the ones that cook relatively fast and get soft after a while; the ones that absorb the cooking fat and the ones that draw water as soon they are added.
The peppers and onion cook relatively fast without browning too quickly, so they are added first. After a minute or so, the garlic, which browns quickly, is added; a little later the squash, which has the tendency to soften without either browning or drawing water. This mix is stirred around and cooked for a minute or so, and then spiced with freshly ground black pepper and ridiculous amounts of thyme, oregano, rosemary, marjoram, and a tiny dose of curry powder (Marseille, I argue, is a big harbor with many oversea goodies available).
No salt yet. I let everything cook for a short while for the fat to absorb the aromas.
Now I add the eggplant cubes, which will quickly absorb all the aromatic fat. I cook them until the whole starts to hiss, then I add the tomatoes, salt and the olives. I stir until some juice forms at the bottom of the pan, add half a glass of red wine, cover and cook until the stew has a consistency to my liking.
I uncover, check for salt and fiddle a little with small quantities of red wine vinegar and sugar if the whole seems bland in some way. If necessary, I reduce the sauce somewhat; if the veggies are already very soft, I transfer them to a bowl with a slotted spoon before reducing the sauce.

Ratatouille made this way can’t get any better. However, I had to learn these past days that no amount of love and understanding saves a ratatouille that is based on sub-standard ingredients.

Of course, I could have guessed that a green squash bought in Sweden in early December cannot possibly be good. They were green, firm and gleaming – haven’t I read Harry Potter? They must be bewitched. I selected an especially healthy and fresh-looking squash. After all the tampering and pampering of the Ratatouille-making process, the cubes of squash all were bitter, and had to be fished out of the pan.

Of course, I ought to use Calamata olives in brine, if I cannot get the salted, slightly dried French ones. I should never have taken that fake-Italian jar with its anonymous black olives in oil. Their presence in my Ratatouille was completely superfluous, and even they had to be fished out and discarded.

And so on. Today, Robin treated a last bit of leftover Ratatouille, containing bits of red pepper and a few sagging eggplant cubes, like a cooked-vegetable salad, with yogurt and salt. This part of the dish thus became really tasty: yogurt is fantastic in Sweden.


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