Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Ratatouille and La Bastille

Rémy, from Ratatouille

The storming of the Bastille prison took place July 14, 1789, 221 years ago today.  The Bastille is where the king would put people who could not pay their taxes.  When the prison was taken over by citizens of the Third Republic, rumor has it that only 7 were actually there.  The prison was dismantled, so it no longer stands.  King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were in power then and I guess you know what happened to them... off with their heads.  When you are in that neighborhood, you can see the outline of the prison on the streets and sidewalks.  The July Column stands in the middle of the square, a monument to the Revolution.

It's a great neighborhood to visit, in the 12th arrondissement.  The (new-- well, relatively speaking- it was inaugurated in 1989) Opéra de la Bastille is there now, all glass and modern.
I could sing La Marseillaise for you, but I will just show you the sculpture, named for the national anthem, that is at the Arc de Triomphe.
So, how have I spent the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille?  Quite a bit of cooking, which makes me very happy, unlike the face above (I use this picture in class to illustrate how I feel when I have been asked a question about something I have just answered...).
I found a recipe in the 2010 Summer Entertaining edition of Cook's Illustrated, my new favorite cooking magazine.  Really, this magazine is amazing.  The writers go into the whys of their recipes without making it too scientific or technical.  I read these magazines from cover to cover.  I found this one at the grocery store yesterday.  It didn't come with my subscription (I am eternally grateful to Sharon and Charles Maxfield for this gift-- I need to write another thank you note!), but I was more than happy to pay for it.
My new recipe?  Ratatouille, one of my summer favorites.  And this recipe is the best I've ever used.  It keeps the flavors separate and the vegetables don't get all mushy.
First the eggplant, l'aubergine-- sprinkled with salt and left to stand to remove some of the water in it.
Next, the zucchini, les courgettes--
Then come the onions, les oignons--
And, of course, bien sûr, the garlic, l'ail--
Tomatoes, les tomates--

And, fresh from my deck garden, parsley, basil and thyme, le persil, le basilic et le thym--
(chopped up with my really cute mezzaluna or hachoir).
Olive oil is the only other ingredient.
When I arrived in Arles in June of 2007 to work with Chef Érick, my French kitchen vocabulary was non-existent.  No kidding.  He sent me off the first night to fetch une louche.  I had no earthly idea that he needed a ladle.  I stood there wandering if I should just play ignorant and bring him any gadget or  truc, or just go ahead and admit that I was clueless.  I decided to go with the latter.  A smart move.  He could probably guess from the look on my face that I had no idea what he was saying anyway.  It just had not even dawned on me that I should actually learn some new vocabulary words before going to work with him.  Nothing like on-the-job-training to teach you some really useful new words.  Survival French.
Alors, revenons à nos moutons... Let's get back to our sheep... the French expression for getting back to the matter at hand.  Maybe it comes from a Molière play?  Non, I just googled it and it comes from a 15th century play, La Farce de Maître Pathelin, written by an unknown author.  I remember reading the play in college, but I thought it was my old friend Molière.
Let's get back to our ratatouille.  Do not be scared of the steps involved in this recipe.  It is very easy and well worth the time and effort.  The Ex-Ex, my most discerning eater, ate two helpings of it for dinner (and he swears that he hates hot tomatoes...).

makes 7 cups, serving 4-6 as a side dish

2 large eggplants (about 2-2 1/2 lbs. total), cut into 1-inch cubes
Table salt
2 large zucchini (about 1 1/2 lbs. total), scrubbed and cut into 1-inch cubes
1/4 cup olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed (about 2 tsp.)
3 medium ripe tomatoes (about 1 pound, very ripe beefsteaks are recommended), peeled and cut into 2-inch cubes (I peel mine by holding them over the gas flame just enough to break the skin so that they can be easily peeled; you can also do this by putting them in very hot water and then peeling them)
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley leaves
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil leaves
1 Tbsp. minced fresh thyme leaves
Ground black pepper

1.  Place eggplant in large colander set over large bowl;  sprinkle with 2 tsp. salt and toss to distribute salt evenly.  Let stand at least 1 hour or up to 3 hours.  Rinse eggplant well under running water to remove salt and spread in even layer on triple layer of paper towels; cover with another triple layer.  Press firmly on eggplant until it is dry and feels firm and compressed.
2.  Adjust one oven rack to upper-middle position and second rack to lower-middle position; heat oven to 500F. Line two rimmed baking sheets with foil.
3.  Toss eggplant, zucchini and 2 Tbsp. olive oil together in a large bowl, then divide evenly between baking sheets, spreading in single layer on each.  Sprinkle with salt and roast, stirring every 10 minutes, until well-browned and tender, 30-40 minutes, rotating baking sheets from top to bottom halfway through roasting time.  Set aside.
4.  Heat remaining 2 Tbsp. oil in heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering.  Add onion; reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring frequently, until softened and golden brown, 15-20 minutes.  Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.  Add tomatoes and cook until they release liquid and begin to break down, about 5 minutes.  Add roasted eggplant and zucchini, stirring gently but thoroughly to combine, and cook until just heated through, about 5 minutes.  Stir in parsley, basil and thyme; season with salt and pepper to taste.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

Rosé wine would have seemed a logical choice-- summer vegetable dish with herbs-- and I have a bottle chilling in the refrigerator.  But I was in the mood for a Côtes du Rhône red tonight.  I chose Ferraton Père et Fils 2008 Samorëns.   A great choice from Wine Authorities.
Et comme dessert?  I don't have dessert very often, but there was a bar of chocolate in my pantry calling my name...
(I always kept a stash of Lindt bars in the cupboard in Arles, too.  I made frequent trips to Monoprix to replenish my supply.)

Bon appétit, la belle France et bonne fête!  Vive la France!

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