August 16, 2004

homage to the late great chef

Sunday, August 15

Yesterday I went to farmers' market and bought a lot of shiny summer vegetable, with ratatouille in my mind. This southern French dish is something that I strongly associate with summer, probably because of the fact it uses aubergine, courgettes, and tomatoes - all summer vegetable, even if they are available year around nowadays.
Few years ago when I shared an apartment with my sister, we would make ratatouille throughout the summer to satiety - well, in reality we never got tired of it. It is, being so simple and delicious, something that we would always go back to.

I have not made ratatouille for years since then, but this year I thought of making it again. There are a whole bunch of different recipes for ratatouille, but I used to look up several different recipes and settle down to an easiest way; cut and saute the vegetable with olive oil and garlic, taste with salt and pepper as well as herbs de province, and simmer for 20-30 minutes. It couldn't go wrong.

But this time several separate issues caught my mind at one time, that eventually led me to the decision to try out another recipe, one by Julia Child. It must have been partly because I learned of her death a few days back, but even before that event I had a couple of occasions where I came across "Julia Child's ratatouille". It was almost like a magical set of keywords - there has to be something that tells me to try her recipe, I was convinced.
To tell you the truth, I know little about this past master. I have seen some of her recipes here and there, but hers appeared to me very complicated and time-consuming; I used to try a lot of fancy dishes many years ago, but I have steered clear of anything too complicated recently. That may be why I have never bothered to take a closer look at her works.
For this reason, I don't own any of her book, including her legendary Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volume 1 in which her famous ratatouille is included. So I got on the net and searched for it, to find two basically same but somewhat different adopted versions (this and this).
Now unfortunately I don't know which version is authentic or closer to her genuine recipe, but in both of the versions, you basically saute vegetables separately, and put them in a casserole making layers, without mixing everything up. I had known that her ratatouille recipe was quite labor-intensive, but it really looked like it.

One might regard it as a disfavor to Julia Child, but I used a bit different ingredients. I used: yellow squash (that funky-looking yellow fellow) in addition to the common zucchini, because I wanted to try one and thought it would make a nice accent in color; red bell peppers in addition to regular green bell peppers, as I like red peppers in ratatouolle; maui sweet onions instead of yellow onions, because I like them; canned whole tomatoes along with fresh roma tomatoes, since I didn't have enough of fresh ones; and fresh thyme in addition to parsley, because I like thyme in ratatouille. Well, now it may seem to be a rather different dish, but I did follow the procedure - slice up the vegetable thinly (I would just cut up in bigger chunks), and peel, seed, and juice the tomatoes (I would never bother it otherwise), saute them separately (well, I worked on eggplant and zucchini together - a bit of cheating, I admit), layer the vegetable carefully, and cooked for just short of 30 minutes. There was nothing really difficult, but it was certainly very time-consuming, especially for something supposedly easy like ratatouille.

But I understood all the reasons when I tasted it when it was done. It was different - totally different from any ratatouille I had ever made or tasted. Each slice of vegetable kept its integrity, as if it had been refusing to be mixed up with other vegetables. All at the same time, the dish as a whole had the integrity, too, with all the vegetables were well coordinated, and in harmoney. All the labor did make a huge difference.

I served my ratatouille with a small bit of basil leaves on top (I forgot to put them before taking a picture) and ate with plain cooked rice. The ratatouille impressed him as much as it did me so, and he instantly became a fan of this dish.
Now the only problem is, since it was his first time eating ratatouille, and the first thing always set the standard; he had the very good (I think I can even claim it "the best") ratatouille as the first thing, it might well disappoint him to some extent if I make a common, easier version next time....


Santos said...

*wow* the veggies in the top photo are so vibrant--they look like they are made of fimo clay or whatever it is your penguin eating ice cream is made of :-)

chika said...

Hi Santos,
Yep, they are both made of clay :D

{m} said...

yes, real eye-catching photos! Ratatouille is a beautiful dish, our favorite too!
:) maia

chika said...

Hi maia,
yeah, isn't it such a great summer dish? :-)