My new obsession is actually a resurgence of an old one. I (like many, many others) owe a good deal of what I know about cooking and baking to Julia Child. My copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking is about as beat-up as a cookbook can get, although I really enjoy and use The Way to Cook, the French Chef Cookbook, and Baking with Julia regularly. Even if I’m making my own recipe or following someone else’s recipe, I’ll often check to see what Julia had to say about whatever the dish is I’m preparing.
Why do I rely on these resources? Well, for starters, there’s just something incredibly trustworthy about a recipe from one of Julia’s books. You can really be sure that Julia will not lead you astray in her directions or in the quality of the final dish. And secondly, the presence of Julia Child in the kitchen is really warm and lovely. Cooking can be incredibly gratifying, as you have a finished product in a relatively short period of time compared to other jobs or efforts, but it can also be a little lonely. It’s not usually a social activity. The way Julia’s recipes are written it’s easy to imagine her with you, guiding you along, and keeping you company with her spirit of fun and adventure. I remember well the first time I attempted an apple charlotte that Julia’s recipe and voice in my head helped me through the somewhat intimidating process. (The results were perfect too.)
She would be 100 years old in a few weeks, and her publishers have organized all kinds of celebratory activities through Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter pages. There’s the JC100 list – a list of Julia’s favorite recipes. There is also a Julia Child restaurant week, from August 7-15, in which restaurants all over the country are preparing special menus in honor of her 100th birthday. I’ve made my reservations, have you?
Finally, there’s the Recipe of the Week, where each week a recipe is shared for people to make and share their results. Her Queen of Sheba cake was featured a number of weeks ago – and here’s where you can see what I did with it. Last week, it was ratatouille, and I was similarly inspired.
Ratatouille (pronounced ra-ta-too’-eee) is a fancy name for a vegetable dish containing eggplant, summer squash or zucchini, and usually bell peppers and tomatoes. The flavor, when done well, is hearty and velvety. It’s as if the individual vegetables combine to make something much greater than the sum of their parts. It’s a stew made of vegetables, held together by a fresh tomato sauce, not merely a bunch of random vegetables cooked together. It’s the sort of thing that is a perfect side to just about any meal, and tastes great warm, room temperature, and even straight from the refrigerator.
The problem is that it’s very easy to make a terrible ratatouille. The vegetables can be soggy and watery, under or over-seasoned, and just kind of a mess. That combined with the fact that making a ratatouille is somewhat time-consuming in the world of vegetable side dishes can make it a daunting endeavor.
This is where Julia Child comes in. Her ratatouille recipe is flawless. And she takes you through it step by step so it’s almost impossible to go wrong. The main challenge with ratatouille is getting rid of the extra water in all the beautiful summer vegetables that go into it and making the dish a cohesive whole while still maintaining some texture and integrity to each individual ingredient.
So I’m sharing my ratatouille results with you, made from Julia’s fail-safe recipe. Please accept my apologies for the rather uninspired photos. I realize that this is a blog about food, and the most important thing for a recipe blog is probably to have really amazing photos of the food.
But there were a couple of problems with that here. First, I’m not the most-accomplished photographer. One of the great things about starting this site is that photography has unexpectedly but happily become a new hobby and I’m learning about how to take a better photo every day. Photos of baked goods are not that difficult, but I’m still not quite there on how to appropriately style and photograph a vegetable stew like ratatouille.
Which leads me to my second point. Ratatouille, while it may taste delicious, is not generally the most attractive item. It looks like a stew of vegetables. Of course, other people have made it beautiful, layering individual slices of vegetables in a multicolored pattern in the style of the ratatouille that is shown in the animated film Ratatouille, like here. I didn’t do that, as I wanted you to see what you would get by following Julia’s recipe – making a nice big casserole of vegetables that will feed 6 to 8 people no problem as a side dish. I think Julia would be proud of my decision – and the photos aren’t that bad, anyway.
I’ve recreated the recipe for you below in my own words, but the link to the real thing is here. As Julia would say, bon appetit!
- 1 lb. (450 g) eggplant
- 1 lb. (450 g) zucchini or yellow summer squash
- 1 lb. (450 g) tomatoes
- 2 bell peppers (green, red, orange or yellow)
- ½ lb. (225 g) onions
- 2 cloves garlic, smashed
- 3 Tbsp. (10 g) minced parsley
- About ½ cup (118 ml) olive oil
- 1 tsp. (6 g) salt, plus more salt and pepper to taste
- Peel the eggplant and slice it into rectangular planks about 3 inches (8 cm) long, 1 inch (3 cm) wide, and 3/8 of an inch (1 cm) thick. Place in a large bowl.
- Scrub the zucchini (or yellow summer squash), cut off the ends, and cut into planks roughly the same size at the eggplant. Add the zucchini to the bowl with eggplant.
- Toss the eggplant and zucchini with 1 tsp. (6 g.) of salt. Let sit for 30 minutes.
- While the eggplant and zucchini are sitting with the salt, bring a medium saucepan of water to a full boil. Remove the stems from the tomatoes and drop then into the boiling water for 15 seconds. Remove the tomatoes and run under cool water until you can safely handle them. Now remove the skin on the tomatoes. It should slip off easily. Cut the tomatoes in half horizontally and, using your fingers and cold running water, remove the seeds and juice from the tomatoes, leaving you with just the tomato flesh. Cut the tomato flesh into strips 3/8 of an inch (1 cm) wide. Set aside.*
- Thinly slice the onions the bell peppers. Set aside together in a bowl.
- Initial cooking of the vegetables:
- Drain the salted eggplant and zucchini and dry the pieces with paper towels or other kitchen towels.
- Heat a frying pan with 4 Tbsp. (59 ml) of olive oil. Starting with the eggplant, and then moving on to the zucchini, in batches that will fit your pan, sauté them for a minute or so on each side to lightly brown them. Be careful, as there will likely be some splattering. Use additional oil if necessary. Set the sautéed zucchini and eggplant aside.
- In the same pan, cook the onion and bell pepper slowly for about 10 minutes. You want to soften these, but not brown them. Add more olive oil if necessary to keep things from browning. Stir in the garlic, and then add salt and pepper to this mixture until it tastes good to you.
- Put the tomatoes in the pan on top of the onion and bell pepper mixture and sprinkle on a little more salt. Cover the pan and cook on low heat for 5 minutes, until the tomatoes are softening and giving up their juices.
- Uncover the pan and raise the heat, stirring once in a while, until the juices in the pan are almost completely evaporated.
- In a casserole that is safe to use on your stovetop, put in ⅓ of the tomato mixture. Sprinkle with ⅓ of the minced parsley. Now put half of the eggplant/zucchini mixture in the casserole, followed by another third (half of what remains) of the tomato mixture, and top it with another third (half of what remains) of the parsley. Continue with the rest of the eggplant/zucchini, tomato mixture, and top with the rest of the parsley.
- Now here’s where the magic happens. First, cover the casserole and cook it on very low heat for 10 minutes. Then remove the cover, tip the casserole and with a spoon or a baster, take some of the juices from the bottom of the casserole and baste the top or your ratatouille with it. This is a good time to check for seasoning and add additional salt and pepper if needed. Continue to cook uncovered for 15 minutes or so, basting occasionally, until the juices on the bottom have evaporated somewhat and only a few tablespoons remain. Watch to make sure you’re not scorching the vegetables on the bottom.
- You’re done! You can serve this warm, room temperature or cold.