During most of the Covid-19 pandemic, Christian’s and my food explorations were back-burnered. We stopped our socially distanced cooking in his garage last Spring, but not before we put together two dozen packages of homemade granola for friends and family.
With vaccination complete—two shots for me, a one-and-done Johnson & Johnson for Christian—we reunited in his kitchen this month for a re-run of a favorite main dish, ratatouille: red, yellow, green, and purple vegetables begging for combination in a chef’s copper skillet. We aren’t chefs, neither of us owns a copper skillet, but we have a well-used wok and a readiness for ratatouille, the dish popularized by the 2007 film of the same name and featuring the charming rodent Remy as a wannabe chef who announced to his trash-scavenging father, “I don’t like garbage, Dad.”
Our recipe—you’ll find it at the end of this blog—is a variation of Ratatouille Provençale in the new edition of Joy of Cooking. Christian takes liberties with instructions. When I ask him why he grins and says, “because I’m lazy about reading recipes.” After months of cooking, he has a freer, more confident hand with seasonings (in this case, smoky paprika, garlic powder, plus fresh rosemary and thyme), likes to add unexpected ingredients (orzo and feta), and enjoys varying the cooking process. With ratatouille, he decided to roast, not simmer, the squashes and zucchinis, resulting in their having a firmer texture.
The best part of cooking with Christian is working alongside him. A secondary perk: learning more about what we’re cooking.
My French-speaking writer friend Marian Exall consulted her French-English Dictionary which defined ratatouille as “a coarse stew.” My go-to source, the Oxford English Dictionary, calls it a “meat and vegetable stew made from cheap or left-over ingredients.” An 1835 recipe calling for bread, mutton, and potatoes supports the idea of ratatouille’s humble origins. My favorite, less-than-inviting description, comes from a novel, Mysteries of Paris, published in 1844: “They make…a ratatouille of the devil; for you can smell, in passing on the staircase, an odor of sulfur, and charcoal, and melted tin.”
The author, Eugène Sue, is new to me. Mysteries of Paris was originally published 178 years ago in 150 newspaper installments and then as a 1300-page brick of a book. Besides authoring historical novels, Monsieur Sue protested the 1851 coup d’etat and worked as a navy surgeon and a journalist. Having inherited a fortune from his father, he was known as a dandy about Paris, but his epic Mysteries chronicled the seamy side of urban-industrial life in Paris and was said to have inspired Les Misérables.
Centuries later, ratatouille has a place of privilege among gourmands, indicated in this 2006 article in Field magazine:
“So there we go, what I think is a perfect summer lunch—potted edible crab, spring lamb with ratatouille, and a mille-feuille of summer berries and macaroons.”
I’m surprised the author (unidentified in the OED, my source) did not slip in a little French for ratatouille’s main ingredient, aubergine for eggplant, or courgettes for squash.
I have the same value as Remy in the 2007 film: “I like good food.” For two days I enjoyed Ratatouille a la Chala, without the accompaniments of spring lamb, summer berries, or potted crab (whatever that is). Let us know if you try the recipe or just jump in the comment box and say Hi.
Ratatouille a la Chala
- Cook orzo according to package directions. Set aside.
- Dice 1 ½ pounds of tomatoes and whir in a food processor. Throw in a handful of fresh chopped basil and a smaller amount of rosemary, stripped of their stems. Set aside.
- Cut into ½ inch chunks, two yellow squash, two zucchinis, and one eggplant, and drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper. Place on parchment and oven roast at 425 degrees for 25 minutes.
- Heat ¼ cup olive oil in a skillet or wok, then add one red onion, sliced or diced, and cook until soft and transparent, about 10 minutes.
- Add six smashed or minced garlic cloves, two red bell peppers, slivered. Simmer for another 10 minutes.
- Stir in tomatoes, roasted vegetables, several sprigs of fresh thyme, smoky paprika, and garlic powder.
- Mix in cooked orzo or make a nest to receive the vegetables. Simmer for five more minutes.
- Top off with chopped fresh basil and feta cheese.