Today’s plat du jour on my table is ratatouille, a classic French vegetable stew that is a specialty of cooks in Provence and Nice. Apparently, a lot of other Mediterranean countries claim some version of this dish, too, so you may have encountered ratatouille under a different name. In Italy it is caponata. In Spain, it is called pisto. It gets its most colorful name, though, in Turkey where it is cooked as a stuffing for an eggplant and is called imam baildi– literally, the imam fainted. Who wouldn’t want to cook (and taste) a dish with that great name?
There are lots of theories about the meaning and origin of the French name for this dish. Rata seems to have been a local term for a chunky stew and touiller is a French word for stirring things up. Somewhere along the way the “r” was dropped. Several sources I’ve read claim that the original ratatouille, given its origin as a peasant food, should actually be translated as “motley stew.” (That one made me laugh, and, in a flight of whimsy, I briefly wondered if the heavy metal band Motely Crue was secretly a group of gourmands who were cool enough to have crafted their name as a clever pun for the Provincial dish? Nah! Didn’t happen.The boys-behaving-badly rock band was never accused of being classy. Ever. I suspect their favorite food group was Lowenbrau.)
Traditionally, ratatouille is served as a side dish with a meat course and/or with rice or couscous. Julia Child, who was famous for her ratatouille, served it alone. I served mine with Israeli couscous from Trader Joe’s. (Israeli couscous is a variation on regular couscous. It is made from wheat, is larger than traditional couscous, and is toasted.)
There are many other ways to serve ratatouille. For example, ratatouille is so popular in Provence that it has fast food versions served on baguettes, pizzas and local flatbreads called fougasses. (A fougasse is often studded with olives, cheese, and garlic. How good does that sound?) Sometimes, ratatouille is served topped with a poached or fried egg to boost the dish’s protein, although the chickpeas in the dish are also a good source of protein. You may want to try one of these variations with your leftovers. This recipe makes a lot of ratatouille!
Whatever its origins, ratatouille is a great dish and one that lets a pastiche of fresh vegetables like eggplants, zucchini, onions, peppers, tomatoes and garlic shine. Here is the recipe. It is easy and nobody at your table will call it a motley stew.
- 1 pound eggplant (peeled or unpeeled and cut into large chunks)
- 3/4 pound zucchini (cut into large chunks)
- 1 pound plum tomatoes (cored and chopped)
- 1 onion (sliced)
- 2 yellow bell peppers (cored, seeded and sliced)
- 1 finnel bulb (about 1 pound) (trimmed and cut into large chunks) Don't leave out the fennel.
- 5 garlic cloves (halved)
- 1 t. salt (to taste)
- Black pepper to taste
- 1/4 C. olive oil
- 3 C. canned or cooked chickpeas (drained)
- 1 T. chopped fresh thyme
- 1 T. chopped fresh parsley (or more)
- Oil-cured Kalamata olives for garnish
- Grated gruyere cheese for garnish
- A drizzle of your best extra-virgin olive oil
- A few chopped cherry tomatoes for garnish
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
- Prepare your vegetables, mix them together and spread them on a large cooking sheet. Drizzle olive oil over the top of the vegetables and toss to coat the vegetables with the olive oil.
- Roast the vegetables in your oven until they are beginning to brown and are tender. The tomatoes should be releasing their water as the dish cooks to create a bit of sauce. This will take about 30 to 40 minutes and you will want to stir the vegetable mixture several times during the cooking.
- Take the tray of vegetables from the oven and mix in the chickpeas. Return the vegetables to the oven and cook for 5 to 10 minutes more.
- Stir in the herbs. Adjust salt and pepper seasonings. Serve hot or warm (or cold) garnished with shredded gruyere, chopped cherry tomatoes, Kalamata olives and a just-before-serving drizzle of the best extra-virgin olive oil you have in your kitchen..
Don't even think about leaving out the fennel. It is wonderful in this dish and is available in most supermarkets.
Here is a link to the original dish from which the recipe above was adapted: Mark Bittman’s Ratatouille.