Watching Ratatouille on a rainy day you mean? No -- not the movie (in which, I learned last week, Thomas Keller was involved in designing and outfitting the kitchen and the food cooked in it)!!
I mean the famed, classic French vegetable dish, composed of bell peppers, zucchini, eggplant, and tomatoes (and sometimes summer squash) slowly cooked together. I know, vague, right? I guess I have just had my fair share of ratatouilles in my life, each of which was made in a different way. Ratatouille in college was a slow cooked mess of the above vegetables, probably seasoned with some dried oregano of sorts. A pretty tasty cooked vegetable for a college dining hall in the dead of winter in VT (yes, in September we ate like kings: fresh organic baby lettuces and ruby red tomatoes grown in the school's Organic Garden. In March, not so much...).
Then there was the life-altering ratatouille omelette experience in Provence. It was 3pm on a given day, and we had been visiting the market in St-Remy-de-Provence. We were driving back to our villa in Cadenet, but failed to do anything for lunch. We came across a lovely fine dining establishment we had read about, and hoped to get a bite to eat, only to learn the kitchen had closed. In despair, we were about to get back in the car and resort to a lunch of cheese and cracker, when the news delivered was taken back. They would love for us to dine with them, if we were okay with eating omelettes and bread. All I can say is that no other omelette has yet to compare (even the lovely french omelettes rolled by my dear French chefs at FCI). The magic ingredient? The most amazingly tender and sweet ratatouille filling. The vegetables were cut in dainty slices, cooked all the way through, yielding an almost caramelly flavor.
And then, one of my favorite experiences, making ratatouille at culinary school, only to have Chef Jacques Pepin come in and tell us all about the "proper" way to make ratatouille. We were going along our merry way, preparing our vegetables and cooking them slowly over the heat of the stove in a large pot, until all of the different textures of the different vegetables broke down to yield one uniform texture, and uniquely blended flavor. Chef Pepin corrected our technique, instead informing us that a truly French ratatouille was made by slowly roasting each vegetable independant from one another, and then combining it to finish.
Though I have still yet to find out which technique is the true, traditional way, I've gone on to make my own version. Like the ratatouille in my omelette in Provence, I love a caramelly flavor, and a texture that is more compote-like than chunky-saucy. However, in the summer, when organic produce is abundant from the garden, I like to keep the cooking-down of the vegetables to a minimum, leaving the zucchini cooked yet still retaining its sense of identity and form, and the tomatoes and peppers identifiable in their similar red states.
Without further ado, my ratatouille recipe, inspired by the recipe from Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food.
1 medium eggplant, cut in 1/2" dice
2 tbsp olive oil
2 medium yellow onions
4-6 garlic cloves
1/2 bunch basil
Pinch chili flakes
2 sweet bell peppers
2 medium zucchini
3 medium tomatoes
6 basil leaves, chiffonade
Toss eggplant in salt and let drain for 20 minutes in a colander. Drain. Saute in oil over medium high heat and set aside. Heat 2 more tbsp oil in a 6 qt saucepan and saute the onions over medium high heat for about 7 minutes, or until they are translucent. Add the garlic, half bunch basil (keep whole, tied together with string), a pinch of salt and chili flakes. Cook for about 2-3 min. Add the peppers and cook 3 minutes more. Then add the zucchini and cook another 3 minutes. Lastly, add the tomato and cook 10 minutes more. Add in the cooked eggplant and cook for about 10-15 min more, or until the mixture has reached your preferred consistency (if you wish to take the long and slow path, turn your heat down to a simmer and let the pot go, checking every so often and giving it a stir. I like cooking it over heat until the zucchini is barely cooked through, and then letting it sit, off the heat, for another 10-20 minutes to carryover). Check seasoning and serve at room temperature or warm, as you wish, garnished with basil chiffonade.