Monday, February 7, 2011

Ratatouille (French Vegetable Stew)

It's interesting that so many of my friends assume I am a big meat-lover. The truth is a bit more complicated. My favorite food happens to be a big juicy steak, preferably made outside on the grill served alongside some delicious fries and even lovelier if served with rice, black beans and some chimichurri. However, other than my occasional steak, I really don’t care for eating meat on a daily basis.

In fact there have been times in my life when I’ve gone vegetarian and even vegan for short periods of time. In one of these instances, during my first year in college, while taking a practical neuroanatomy class held in a gross anatomy lab where we had to handle and study real brains the smell of formaldehyde and seeing the things in the lab made me completely averse to meat and I became vegetarian for some time. Sorry for such graphic detail! But, eventually I missed my steak and broke away from my strictly vegetarian habits. I also love seafood and dairy too much to stay vegan for long.

Anyhow, eating vegetables and fruits is a good habit I’ve been able to install in my kids. Yes, they like pizza, cakes and chips, but they love vegetables and fruits just the same. Their breakfast always includes fresh fruits and at-home meals always incorporate vegetables. My husband refuses to have anything but fruit for dessert. So it is no surprise that my family absolutely loved it when I made this ratatouille.

I had never made ratatouille before and didn’t want the traditional vegetable stew-like these but rather a more Remy’s version of it.

So I kind of looked around and decided to play with Julia Child's Ratatouille recipe a little and here is the result. What I liked most about her recipe is that she doesn’t ask for all the herbs most recipes do and, honestly, I am not a big thyme-lover. But, go ahead and add other herbs if that is what you like, herbes de Provence or just thyme alone are probably good options.

Adapted from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking

* Julia Child has her own method for getting the pulp of the tomatoes, but I use a technique learned with my Moroccan mother-in-law which I think is the best and easiest way to get fresh, skinless tomato pulp without having to take out the food processor. All you need is a box grater. Wash and cut the tomato in half, then grate tomato on the coarse holes of box grater, skinless side down. You will be left with the skin in your hand, which you will discard.

2 cups onion, thinly sliced
2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded, diced
1 tomato for pulp*
1 cup green bell pepper, diced
Crushed garlic, to taste ( I think I used about 4)
2 thin eggplants
2 zucchinis
2 yellow squashes
Chopped parsley
Salt and black pepper to taste
Olive oil

Trim the ends off the eggplant, zucchini and yellow squash. Using a sharp knife, mandolin or food processor, slice vegetables thin. Toss vegetables with salt and let sit for about 30 minutes in a colander to drain.

Pour oil in a skillet and heat. Add onions, let cook for about 2 minutes in low heat. Add peppers and cook until tender, about 8 minutes, stirring frequently making sure onions don’t burn. Add garlic, cook for a few seconds, add salt and pepper to taste.

Add diced tomato and ½ of the tomato pulp to the skillet, mix well with the onions and green pepper and let cook for about 5 minutes covered. Add rest of the pulp and cook uncovered for about 3 minutes. Add parsley, stir and remove from heat and set aside.

Pat dry the salted vegetables that having been draining and toss with olive oil and if necessary with more salt.

Pour onion, green peppers and tomato puree into bottom of an oval baking dish. Arrange slices of vegetables alternating. Drizzle vegetables with any remaining olive oil and fresh ground pepper.

Cover dish with a piece of parchment paper** cut to fit inside. Bake in preheated 375oF oven for about 40 minutes until vegetables have released their liquid and are cooked without falling apart, you can test with a fork.

**my second baking dish I covered with aluminum foil and I thought the one with parchment paper worked better. Go ahead and put aluminum foil if you like. However, the one with aluminum foil after 40 minutes covered had to be left in the oven uncovered for a few more minutes to dry some of the liquid

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