Places are not foreign, you are. You always will be. The imprint of your individual presence on a faraway land, no matter how hard you press, will not endure. Replete with culture, history, people then, people now, Place is bigger than all of us. It is a monument to be revered.
Intimidating for any traveler, this is often the inspiration for minute-by-minute itineraries that transform travel into a checklist. As satisfying as a good checklist can be, it’s limiting. It may be the best way to get somewhere new, but it leaves no room to really, wholeheartedly arrive. Absolutely, the monument must be broken down into manageable pieces; I plan around regional cuisine. Not a list of restaurants to go to, but a knowledge of the dishes that epitomize a place. Wander, look for them, eat them over and over, note the differences, ask the chef questions. Savor a meal that speaks to the long-living soul of a city, a region, a country—a soul you’ll never fully know and upon which you will leave little mark, but if you let it, will grab you by the shoulders and look you in the eyes in a way you won’t forget.
Ratatouille grabbed me by the shoulders and, frankly, shook me. The main components are historically some of my least favorite things: zucchini, no thank you—eggplant, why do people eat this on purpose? I walked into my neighbor Genevieve’s house, excited to cook beside her, nervous that at the end of the night I’d be smiling and nodding politely while pushing the veggies around my plate like a child.
She described a vegetable stew: courgette, oignon, poivrons vert et rouge, aubergine, ail, basilic, huille d’olive, all cooked individually on the stove top, then combined and simmered with crushed tomatoes and stock until rich and thick. Embarrassed and confused, I had to ask:
“Then what in the world is the dish that’s layered in spirals and baked in an oven?”
“Tian. All the same ingredients, but cooked differently. Sometimes with fresh coriander instead of basil. We will make that later this week.”
My aversion to the ingredients kept me from ever looking beyond the movie to learn a single thing about ratatouille. My aversion to the ingredients also kept me from having a fantastic, easy, and affordable dish in my repertoire for the past 29 years. Savoring the process, savoring the meal, was a reminder. Provence knows more than you, even about those things you fancy yourself an expert.
Ratatouille, the quintessential autumnal vegetable stew of Provence, is delicious. Warm, comforting, filling, dynamic—the ingredients work together to create something much grander than any of the veggies on their own. They maintain distinct qualities and textures, but after simmering together, the zucchini becomes tender and sweet, the eggplant earthy and almost caramelly, the peppers bright and textural, and the tomato acidic yet solid, acting as the grout that holds this mosaic of fall flavors in harmony.
I can’t recommend highly enough: make ratatouille this fall. Pick a comfortably chilly day—one where the cool fall air fights with the still-warm sun for your attention—and eat it outside. Take a bite, close your eyes, breathe in the smell of changing leaves, and think of Provence.
Ratatouille (serves 3-4 as an entree, 6-8 as an appetizer)
Time: ~1-1.5 hours
3 large zucchini
1 green pepper
1 red pepper
2 large garlic cloves
3 heaping tablespoons tomato paste
1/2c chicken or vegetable stock
1 can crushed tomatoes with juices (or 4 large fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped into bite-size pieces & 1c of water)
2 tsp paprika
2 tsp coriander
2 tsp pepper
1/8c fresh basil
Salt to taste
1. Peel eggplant and zucchini and cut into ½ inch, bite-sized pieces. Place each in colanders over medium-sized bowls, and toss each with 1TBS Kosher salt and let sit for 20-30 minutes. This will remove excess liquid, allowing us to sear the veggies as opposed to steaming them.
2. While the eggplant and zucchini are salting, peel & cut the peppers into 1/4 inch slices (don’t fret over removing each and every bit of skin, but it is worth removing, as it’s bitter and may permeate the stew), peel & cut the onions the same way, mince garlic, and combine tomato paste and stock in a small bowl.
3. After 20-30 minutes, press the eggplant and zucchini with a plate to remove excess liquid and toss with a tea towel to dry.
4. Cover the bottom of a large stockpot with olive oil and heat over high. Add zucchini in an even layer. Allow to sit for 3 minutes, then stir often.
5. Cover the bottom of two frying pans with olive oil and heat over medium-high. Add onions to one and peppers to the other, stirring often until onions are golden brown and peppers are slightly softened and have a bit of color.
6. Cover the bottom of a frying pan with olive oil and heat over high. Add eggplant. Allow to sit for 5 minutes and then stir—it should be nicely seared.
7. When zucchini is nicely browned, reduce heat to medium and add garlic, stock, and tomato paste mixture, the full can of tomatoes, garlic, fresh basil, and 1 of the two teaspoons each of paprika, coriander, pepper. Allow to simmer.
8. When onions and peppers are softened and golden, and eggplant is well-seared on both sides, add to the large pot. Mix together, cover, and allow to simmer over medium heat for 30 minutes.
9. Add 2nd teaspoon each of paprika, coriander, and pepper, and add salt to taste. Simmer 5 more minutes, or until zucchini is no longer crunchy.
10. Serve over white rice and top with fresh basil.