Ratatouille: The dish, not the movie

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As this is an article appearing in the Food section, the ratatouille I'm referring to is the French vegetable dish, not the movie. I did have a good laugh though while researching when I came across an article that felt the need to debunk the notion the dish was made up for the Disney movie. It was a nice movie, but really?!

Ratatouille originated in the area around Nice, France as a summer harvest peasant dish using vegetables in the style of Provencal cuisine. The name refers to a coarse or "motley" stew. It's the first time I'd heard of a stew being referred to as "motley"; however, I can attest to the fact that it's been prepared by a motley crew!

Especially because it's a peasant dish, there are countless preparations. Virtually all preparations include tomatoes, onions, garlic, summer squash, eggplant, bell peppers and fresh herbs, although the inclusion of fennel, olives and beans is not uncommon. It's a very versatile dish as it can be served as a side dish or as part of, or entirely as, a main dish, either hot or cold. It can be prepared ahead and heated mixed with pasta or served over rice or couscous as a quick, healthy and satisfying weekday meal.

My history with ratatouille dates to my earliest days in the restaurant business, when I was working as the sous chef for my friends, David and Mary Bolton, at Mary's Restaurant in Bristol, Vt., in the mid 1970s. We would make it in relatively large batches and bake it over chicken breasts topped with mozzarella cheese or as a filling for crepes.

Mary's became a hub of sorts for artists, musicians and those of us doing our best to find a better way during those days in the '70s, which rivaled the divisiveness of our present social situation. We prepared inexpensive, interesting and nourishing food at Mary's Restaurant primarily for like-minded souls and Middlebury College students.

All the food at Mary's was prepared to order to the music of Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Dave Van Ronk, Van Morrison and the like. Everything from the bread to the desserts was made in-house by the three of us. I believe Mary's would still be relevant today, although none of us have the slightest inclination, nor the ability anymore I might add, to return to the restaurant business some 40-plus years later. My almost four years spent with the Boltons was a culinary awakening for me, and I have David and Mary to thank for it.

OVEN ROASTED RATATOUILLE

I've experimented with a number of ways of preparing ratatouille and I particularly like this version for its ease of preparation and depth of flavor that roasting the vegetables provides. I'm a firm believer in ingredients, so excellent quality fresh vegetables and herbs are a must, as well as top-quality balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil to finish the ratatouille.

INGREDIENTS:

1 medium zucchini

1 medium yellow summer squash

I medium eggplant, peeled

1 medium red bell pepper

All the above vegetables cut in 3/4- 1 inch dice. Taken together, they should total about 6 cups

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1/2 large Spanish onion, peeled and cut in quarters lengthwise

4 large cloves of garlic, peeled and cut in chunks

Approximately 1/2 cup everyday olive oil to coat the vegetables for roasting

2 medium beefy tomatoes cut in 1/2-inch dice

1/2 cup thinly sliced basil leaves

1/2 cup thinly sliced flat leaf parsley

1/4 cup top-quality extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon top-quality balsamic vinegar

Salt (preferably Maldon salt) and freshly ground pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS:

Separate the oven racks so that the lower rack is second from the lowest rack and the upper rack is second from the top and preheat oven the to 450 degrees. Coat the onion quarters in the everyday olive oil and stand them cut side up on a small sheet pan or roasting plate lined with foil or parchment. I use a separate pan for the onion as I don't toss them halfway through as I do the other vegetables.

Combine the garlic, zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant and red bell pepper, coat them with everyday olive oil and spread on a 11-by-17-inch sheet pan lined with foil or parchment or on pans with sufficient room to spread the vegetables in a single layer. Place the pan with the onion on the lower rack of the oven and the other vegetables on the upper rack and roast for 15 minutes.

Leaving the onion in the oven, remove the pan with the rest of the vegetables from the oven and carefully turn them with a spatula.

Meanwhile, combine the herbs, diced tomato, top-quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar in a metal bowl large enough to toss all the vegetables together when the vegetables finish roasting. Roast the vegetables for an additional 10 minutes, for a total of 25 minutes. Remove the pans from the oven and slice the onion in large slices, discarding any overly blackened and dry layers from the bottom of the onion. While the roasted vegetables are still hot, combine all the vegetables in the bowl, stir gently, add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste and serve.


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