I think it might be time for me to quit my job, whip out the credit card and spend the next six months in Paris. See, my last six-month Paris stint was now more than 10 years ago (Paris. Spring. 1999.), but I still talkabout it like it was just last year. My food memories of Paris are some of my first real food memories, because the food I ate there was just so different from what I was used to.
One of the big winners that spring was ratatouille, the French country stew now immortalized in film by an epicurean rodent. The version that I knew was not the gorgeous layered version developed specifically for the film (and subsequently recreated by bloggers). Mme Biard’s ratatouile used no peppers, included no special sauces, and required no complicated preparation. In fact, it was the only recipe that came back from Paris with me, because it was easy to remember: equal parts by weight of eggplant, zucchini, onion and tomato, diced and cooked until cooked. And that’s exactly how I’d made it, give or take some garlic and herbs, until just now.
See, Cook’s Illustrated magazine is having its way with me. First it was the scones, and then the blondies, and now they’ve gone and improved classic ratatouille. They pointed out that the original is, well, gloppy. And often watery. And potentially overcooked. And it shames me to admit it, but they were right. Even the version I fell in love with in Paris would meet this description.
They adjusted the quantities (more eggplant), actually dealt with the quirks of the ingredients (salting and pressing said eggplant) and concentrated flavors (roasting said eggplant along with the zucchini instead of cooking it to mush on the stove). And while their ratatouille takes a touch longer to make, I will begrudgingly admit that it is indeed better. Each vegetable is distinctive and maintains its integrity and flavor.
And while the process is more complicated, I devised a way to make it into a weeknight dinner by simply roasting the eggplant and zucchini the night before. Making use of summer’s bounty, I also doubled the amount of tomatoes called for by the magazine (closer to the quantity of eggplant) as the original recipe seemed pretty light. It was a good choice, especially with the amazing heirlooms we got in the farm box that week. I also didn’t bother to peel the tomatoes and didn’t notice peels in the final product – so that’s optional as far as I’m concerned.
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated
2 large eggplants (2 – 2 1/2 pounds), cut into 1-inch cubes
2 teaspoons salt
2 large zucchini (1 1/2 pounds), cut into 1-inch cubes
1/4 cup olive oil, divided
1 large onion, chopped
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
3 large, ripe tomatoes, peeled (optional) and cut into 2 inch chunks
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
In a large colander, mix together salt and eggplant. Set the colander over a bowl or in the sink and let the eggplant sit for 1-3 hours. Rinse eggplant well under running water to remove salt. Spread in an even layer on triple-thick paper towels. Cover with anoter triple thickness of papers towels and press firmly to collapse cell walls and absorb moisture. When finished, eggplant should feel firm and mostly dry. You may need to re-up on the paper towels midway through.
Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Adjust racks to upper- and lower-middle positions. Line two rimmed baking sheets with foil.
Toss compressed eggplant and zucchini cubes together in a large bowl with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Spread in a single layer on the two prepared baking sheets. Sprinkle with salt and roast, stirring every 10 minutes, until well-browned and tender, 30-40 minutes, rotating sheets from top to bottom halfway through the baking time. Set aside; or, if you want to finish the recipe the following day, refrigerate in an airtight container.
When you are ready to continue, heat remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and reduce heat to medium low. Cook, stirring frequently, until onion is soft and golden-brown, 15-20 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and cook until they release their juices and begin to break down, about 5 minutes. Add the roasted eggplant and zucchini and stir gently to combine. Cook until heated through, about 5 minutes. Stir in the herbs immediately before serving, and salt and pepper to taste.
Serve with an herbed rice pilaf, over pasta, or with crusty bread. A grating of hard cheese is a delicious but not required accompaniment. A topping of roasted pine nuts is also fantastic – but now I’m getting extravagant