Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Healthy Main Dish: Ratatouille

I grow my own vegetables and herbs. I like being able to tell people that the lunch I'm serving started out as a seed in my yard. – Curtis Stone 

Delicious, smoky and filling!

I made ratatouille recently and I am glad to inform you no rats were harmed in the process. And it was delicious and filling, even if it was vegetarian fare.

Ratatouille, the movie. Photo: Fernando Galeano, Flickr ccl
Most of us are familiar with the name Ratatouille in reference to the 2007 animated movie of the same name. In it, Remy, a rat with a highly developed sense of taste and smell, helps a bumbling young chef (Alfredo) reach culinary heights by directing his cooking by pulling the hair under his chef’s hat.

As you can imagine, hilarity ensues and all ends well –– after the possibility of grave disaster. Good movie, lots of laughs and highly recommended for the kids. But that’s not real ratatouille.

Ratatouille is a traditional Provençal dish made entirely of vegetables. It originated in Nice, and the “full” name is ratatouille niçoise.

The word “ratatouille” comes from “ratatolha” from the Occitan language which is spoken in parts of southern France, Italy’s Occitan valleys, Monaco and some northern parts of Spain. “Touiller,” in French, means to toss food. So combined they made the word ratatouille.

All the vegetables after being cooked.
As you can imagine the dish has versions in parts of all those countries. It also has variations on many other countries of the world including Romania, Turkey, Greece and more.

I found some very divergent ideas about ratatouille when I went looking for a recipe. Some called for the vegetables to be briefly cooked separately, some for a longer time all together. There was intermittent basting, and other time-intensive techniques as well. My recipe follows none of what I found, exactly.

Julia Child swore by layering the vegetables and baking in the oven. This is (the only?) one time I disregarded her advice. Others used a stovetop method. I made a hybrid.

Ratatouille was a peasant farmer dish made when the vegetables were at their ripest. The original – and simplest – form of Ratatouille used only zucchini, tomatoes, green and red bell peppers, onions and garlic. Traditionally ratatouille dod not contain eggplant, which is a "modern" addition. Eggplant wasn't part of Western cuisine until the 1500s.

I can’t imagine this dish without eggplant. Ratatouille is still usually made in summer, and as a side dish, but can be turned into a vegetarian main course easily by serving with pasta, rice, bread or polenta. Try to get the best looking vegetables possible.

Once cool enough to handle, cut into large pieces.
I love eggplant with a nice pan-browned surface – and I never salt it. One of the healthy chemicals in eggplant is recognized by the slightly bitter taste. If you draw out the moisture by salting you loose health benefits. 

So I fry the heck out of it. It adds a lot of depth to the already heady vegetable.

Of all the recipes I saw, the best ones seemed to brown the vegetables separately and then bring them together. So that is what I did.

Once the eggplant was browned I did the same to the onions, red peppers and zucchini. This searing partially cooks the vegetables, as well as giving lots of smokey flavour. Lots of flavour is key whenever you’re having a vegetarian main.

I discovered that many of the recipes do not fully cook the veggies. A little on the firm side is the way to go. It also looks much better on the plate rather than an unappetizing mush.

Ratatouille is a good dish if you’re trying to lose weight. This is because not only is it low in fat and calories, but high in nutrients from all the vegetables. Ratatouille has a few other uses than just a side dish as well. It's excellent to use to fill omelets or crepes.

Healthy, versatile, and delicious!

Garlic, red wine and diced tomatoes are simmered.
Prep: 40 min  |  Cook: 30 min  |  Serves 8 as a side or 4 for main
1 medium eggplant
2 medium zucchini
1 medium onion
2 red peppers
salt & olive oil (see recipe)
4 garlic cloves
28 oz can diced tomatoes
1/2 cup red wine
salt & pepper to taste
1/2 cup minced basil

Prepare all the vegetables first.

Slice the eggplant into 3/4" thick rounds. Cut the zucchini in two lengthwise from stem to tip and then cut each half into two equal lengths. Slice the onion into thick rounds and keep intact. Seed the peppers and cut into quarters.

Heat a little olive oil in an oven proof pot, like a Dutch oven. Place the eggplant slice s in the oil and salt lightly. Let brown on both sides. Remove to a bowl.

This is the result. Use as a side dish, or as a main with
pasta, rice, bread or polenta – or in a crepe or omelet.
Repeat the process with the zucchini, onion and peppers. You want to have lots of browning on the vegetables to impart flavour. Salt and pepper (slightly) as you cook.

Once all the vegetables are browned let cool until able to be handled. Cut everything into pieces about 1" square. Place back into the bowl with whatever juices have collected. Do not throw that out!

Heat the oven to 400°F.

Add the garlic to the pot and sauté briefly. Then add the red wine and canned tomato with its juice. Cook until most of the liquid has evaporated. Stir in the chopped vegetables and gently toss to combine. taste for salt and pepper and adjust as desired.

Place the pot in the oven for 30 minutes. Toss halfway through. After the 30 minutes, chop the basil and stir into the pot.

For a main vegetarian dish serve on polenta. You can top with freshly grated parmesan cheese if desired.


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  1. Thanks Darrell! You've inspired me to make a stove top version tonight. As a fellow foodie I'm struggling a bit in my teeny Paris kitchen. Please send any more tips for the oven-less my way! Hope you are doing well!

    1. Paris? As in France? Wow. I have a lot of stove top one pot meals on the blog. I use my Dutch oven quite a lot.