This article was published in The Wine Advisor FoodLetter on Thursday, Jul. 19, 2007 and can be found at http://www.wineloverspage.com/wineadvisor2/food/tsfl20070719.php.
If you love food and cooking but haven't seen the film "Ratatouille" yet, you really ought to put it on your viewing schedule, and don't just wait for it to come out on DVD.
Far more than just a comedy for children, Pixar Animation Studios' fable about Remy, a French rat who wants to be a chef, speaks to intelligent youngsters and food-loving grown-ups alike. The story is sweet yet surprisingly deep, the animation is spectacular with beautifully rendered Paris scenes, and as a bonus we're gifted with a surprisingly on-target portrayal of the restaurant world in both the dining room and the kitchen.
The plot, as you likely know, turns on a glorified rendition of ratatouille, the ancient Provencal country dish, that touches the heart of an arrogant old dining critic and eventually changes his life.
It's a cute and touching tale, one that will surely make you laugh and may also wring out a tear or two. And it has made just about every "foodie" I know crave a dish of ratatouille.
The original version, though identified with Provence, wouldn't be out of place in any Mediterranean cuisine from Spain through Southern France and Italy and on to Greece and beyond. It invariably contains eggplant, zucchini or summer squash, bell peppers and plenty of onions and garlic, simmered for hours in olive oil until it fairly falls into an intensely flavored stew.
The version in the movie, a somewhat dandified modern rendition, presents the vegetables in micro-thin rounds that mount up in an artful, multi-colored spiral atop a comforting pool of piperade, the long-cooked pepper, onion, garlic and olive-oil stew that makes the base for traditional ratatouille.
An invention of three-star Chef Michel Guerard, who called it "confit Bayaldi" in honor of the Turkish eggplant dish "Imam Bayaldi," the dish was reinvented by French Laundry Chef Thomas Keller as "confit Byaldi," a term that, entered into a Google search, will bring up dozens of recipes for the version that Keller created as a consultant to Pixar for the movie. Here's one that doesn't require online registration, in the Newburyport, Mass. Daily News:
Ratatouille is a perfect dish for summer: It takes advantage of many of the veggies that abound during summer's bounty, best at local produce markets or from your own garden; it keeps well after cooking, and can be served hot, warm or even cold.
Unfortunately, the traditional version requires hours of gentle cooking, and Keller's widely reprinted movie variation purportedly takes 3 1/2 hours from start to finish.
Could I replicate the spirit of the original and pick up a hint of Remy's, er, Keller's variation in a rendition that can be brought to the table in an hour or so? I think so, and would argue that for vegetables picked at their peak of summer ripeness, three hours of simmering is overkill. This version holds the veggies at a point of creamy tenderness but doesn't let them fall apart; yet the flavors seem right on. I've included a slightly finicky plating procedure that distantly echoes Remy's artful veggie spiral, but you could certainly skip that step and dump the whole thing into a serving bowl with no real sacrifice of flavor.
The secret to success with ratatouille, as with so many Provencal dishes, lies in the olive oil. Use the best you've got, and don't be shy about pouring it on. Although I'm usually very careful about controlling the amounts of oil and butter in my recipes to hold calorie count within reason, a half-cup (120ml) or more of excellent olive oil doesn't really seem out of line in an all-vegetable dish. You'd get as many calories out of a good rare steak.
1 medium sweet onion
1. Prepare the vegetables first. Peel the onion, shallot and garlic cloves and slice them all paper-thin. Remove seeds and ribs from the green pepper and cut it into thin strips. Put all of these vegetables together in a work bowl.
2. Peel three of the plum tomatoes and cut them into 1/2-inch-thick slices; set aside separately. Peel the rest of the tomatoes, remove most of the seeds, and cut them into rough dice. Pull the leaves from the thyme and chop the basil and parsley.
3. Put a good quantity (1/4 cup) of your best olive oil in a heavy saucepan and heat until it sizzles. Add the chopped onions, garlic and peppers, stir once or twice, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste and a dash of dried red-pepper flakes; cover tightly, reduce heat to low and cook for about 15 minutes, checking occasionally to stir and make sure it's not sticking. Add a little more olive oil if necessary.
4, Add the chopped tomatoes and the herbs, stir, cover again and cook for another 10 minutes.
5. While this flavor base is cooking, slice the squash (or squash and zucchini for more color variety) and the eggplant into even, thin (1/8-inch) slices.
6. Arrange the eggplant slices in an even layer on top of the cooking onion, garlic and green pepper mix; sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste and drizzle on about 1 tablespoons of olive oil; cover and cook for about 5 minutes. Repeat the process with the sliced squash, add salt and pepper and a little oil, cover and cook for another 5 minutes. Finally, distribute the remaining rounds of plum tomato atop it all, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes until all the vegetables are cooked to creamy tenderness but the eggplant, squash and tomatos still hold their shapes. Overall, the dish will cook for just about 1 hour.
7. Lift out the tomato slices, squash and eggplant and set aside to drain. Put the cooked onions, garlic and peppers in shallow bowls; arrange the sliced veggies on top, taking time to lay down alternate rounds of eggplant, squash, zucchini and tomato in a neat spiral if you want to emulate Remy's version.
8. Dress with a lemon juice and the last of the olive oil and serve with crusty baguettes.
MATCHING WINE: This all-veggie dish doesn't just stand up to a red wine, it needs a red wine, hearty and acidic. Just about any good red from Provence, Languedoc or the Southern Rhone will work fine. I turned to the New World for a change and found success with the modest, robust Rosenblum Cellars 2005 "Chateau La Paws" California Cote du Bone Roan, an odd blend of Carignane, Syrah, Zinfandel and Mourvedre that wouldn't seem out of place on the hillsides of Provence.
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