When I was working at Michel Guerard’s restaurant in France, there was one expression that was music to my ears. Every day at about 5 pm, one of the cooks would yell, “Bouffe!” to announce the staff “nosh.” We would all gather at a long farm table — cooks, dishwashers, servers and sommeliers — to enjoy a hearty meal before facing the orchestrated chaos of the dinner service.
This dish was one of my favorites, because it got me through the evening while leaving me feeling light in my clogs. It was usually accompanied by a large platter of braised meat or a whole roasted fish. But to me, a giant roasted spud overflowing with stewed vegetables and bubbling cheese is completely satisfying on its own.
The art of ratatouille lies in the cut of the vegetables — the daintier the dice, the more refined the dish — as well as in the cooking. My 3-star mentors would have fired me on the spot had I sautéed the components simultaneously. But my version saves on time and olive oil. I’ve also found that Japanese eggplants have fewer seeds and are best for holding their shape and color. As for the traditional salting of the vegetables to drain the excess liquid, it’s simply not needed.
Adding black olives, mushrooms, capers, anchovies, or raisins to the mix would probably further infuriate the gods of classic French cuisine. But this ratatouille’s not destined for a silver tray. It’s family chow — wonderfully uncomplicated and deliciously nourishing.
4 large russet potatoes, scrubbed well
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion (about 8 ounces), chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 small Japanese eggplants (about 8 ounces), diced
1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
2 zucchini (about 8 ounces), diced
1/2 cup red wine
2 tablespoons tomato paste
4 plum tomatoes, seeded and diced
2 teaspoons Herbes de Provence
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
2 cups fresh grated mozzarella cheese
Sour cream and chives, for garnish (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 425° F. Prick the potatoes a few times with a fork. Rub the skins all over with olive oil and sea salt and put them on a baking sheet. Once the oven is hot, pop the potatoes in the oven to bake until they are completely soft, 45 minutes to 1 hour (Cooking time will depend on the size of your potatoes.). Set aside.
2. While the potatoes are baking, prepare the Ratatouille: In a large nonstick sauté pan, heat the olive oil over a medium flame. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until soft and translucent, stirring often to prevent browning, about 3 minutes.
3. Add the eggplant and red peppers and cook until softened and beginning to brown, about 10 minutes. Add the zucchini and cook until softened, about 3 minutes.
4. Pour in the wine and tomato paste, and stir to coat all the vegetables and distribute the tomato paste throughout. When the wine has nearly evaporated, add the tomatoes and Herbes de Provence, and season generously with salt and pepper. Simmer until the tomatoes have softened and most of the liquid has evaporated. Adjust seasoning, sprinkle with the fresh basil, and set aside to keep warm.
5. If serving the potatoes as a main course, cut a cross in the tops of the potatoes and gently press on the ends to expose the flesh. To serve as a side dish, cut each potato in half and scoop out a bit of the flesh to make room for the ratatouille. Add a pat of butter to each, season with salt, then top with a generous amount of ratatouille. Top each with grated cheese. Place under a broiler for a few minutes to melt the cheese. Top with sour cream and chives if desired. Serve hot and bubbly.
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Photo credit: kitchendaily.com