Ratatouille: The Still Life You Can Eat

Ratatouille: The Still Life You Can Eat

In the opening minutes of the 2007 Pixar film,
Ratatouille, the rat, Remy, has stolen a chanterelle mushroom and a small morsel of tomme de chèvre.  He scurries to find a few herbs herbs, and gets the idea to roast the mushroom over a chimney.  He cobbles together a makeshift rotisserie using the tines of a roof antenna. Unfortunately the lightning of an approaching thunderstorm zaps him from the roof in a cloud of smoke and singed fur.  This could be the end of Remy, but he survives, and the intense jolt from the lightning has now fused the alpine goat cheese into the gills of the mushroom cap.  It’s a sort of monkey at a typewriter moment, but instead of writing Hamlet, this country rat has unexpectedly invented molecular gastronomy.  When he dusts himself off and takes a bite, his mind sparks and he begins describing the flavors as sounds. “You know it’s got this BABOOM!,” he says excitedly, “a ZZAPP kinda taste.” It’s a brilliant moment because he creates a kind of art so good he can only use the vocabulary of another art form to describe it.

(Featured knife from recipe. G-Fusion 8" Chefs Knife, Sunburst)

That’s the beauty of good art:  the only way to understand it is with more art.
With that in mind, let me say that good ratatouille is like a Monet.  You ever look at San Maggiore at Dusk or Impression, Sunrise?  If you haven’t, do, and when you do, log away that feeling you get in your heart. If you have any inclination toward the artistic, the feeling is profound.  If you don’t, don’t sweat it, the art is good enough to sneak inside your heart and lie in wait.  Then, after you’ve looked at the paintings, it doesn’t really matter when, taste some really well made ratatouille and something mysterious will happen.  As the distinct flavors of ripe roasted tomatoes, sweet squash just on the verge of melting, firm, meaty eggplant, licorice-scented basil, and red pepper glide across your palate, that familiar feeling the painting patiently held in your heart will release. Like the Monet, what at first seems like a blur of colors, will reveal instead a series of carefully placed small gestures, each one a self-contained burst of feeling.  Soon, you won’t be able to shake the thought that somehow, impossibly, you’re almost eating art.  
Look, I know it sounds crazy, and not a little pretentious, but that’s how good art works.  It’s humility always teetering on the verge of high-mindedness. Look at Monet, or Renoir, or Van Gogh.  For all of their grand proclamations about art, when it comes down to actually taking in their work, it’s their humility that gets you.  Whether it’s a table of sweaty people eating on the banks of the Seine, delicate lily pads on a murky pond, or a cypress tree interrupting the night sky, the grand and humble converge to deliver a purity of expression (or impression) that pierces deep.
Ratatouille does similar sneaky work on the mind.  It’s a humble dish.  A chopped vegetable stew. But that humility hides intoxicating powers.  It can unlock forgotten memories.   Perhaps it will summon shoeless Julys of screen porch supper as cicadas start to take over the night.  Perhaps it will call up that time the mangy Labrador appeared in the backyard with a mouthful of prize tomatoes looking guilty, sullen, and sated.  Perhaps you never had one of those summers.  I never even had a Labrador.  But eating ratatouille makes me think I did.  It’s powerful that way.  It can make you nostalgic for a time you never actually experienced.  One bite and you’ll swear you drank Bandol with Monet in his studio one late summer afternoon.  And that’s okay.  Brag to your friends you did.  If they’re eating ratatouille with you, they’ll probably believe you, and swear they were there too.  

Serves 4 
•   2 small yellow zucchini
•   2 small green zucchini
•   4 roma tomatoes, peeled
•   2 small eggplant
•   2 red peppers
•   4 cloves of garlic
•   1 medium onion
•   1 small handful of basil leaves. (maybe 10 or 12 leaves)
•   salt and pepper to taste
•   olive oil
•   Parchment paper

    Make the Sauce
    1. 1. Roast and peel the red peppers.
      1. 1. Cook the red peppers directly over the flame of your stove until black all around.  Alternatively you can use your broiler if you have an electric stove.
      2. 2. Place the blackened red peppers in a Ziploc bag for at least 5 minutes.
      3. 3. Transfer the peppers to a cutting board and scrape the blackened skin off of the peppers.
      4. 4. Discard the skins and the seeds.  
      5. 5. Coarsely chop the peppers and add to a mixing bowl.
    2. 2. Chop the onion to a medium dice and add to the mixing bowl.
    3. 3. Coarsely chop the garlic and add the mixing bowl.
    4. 4. Cut the ends off of the yellow and green zucchini, eggplant, and tomatoes, and add those ends to the mixing bowl.  
    5. 5. Heat a large skillet or sauce pan over medium high heat.  
    6. 6. Add enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan.
    7. 7. Add the onions, garlic, red pepper, and the ends of the Zucchini, eggplant and tomato.
    8. 8. Cook, stirring occasionally, until very jammy.  Approx. 15 minutes.  
    9. 9. Add this mixture to a blender and blend until very smooth.
    10. 10. Set aside.

    Make the Ratatouille
    1. 1. Preheat the oven to 325ºF. 
    2. 2. Thinly slice the yellow zucchini into rounds and place in a large bowl or on a plate.
    3. 3. Repeat with eggplant, green zucchini, and tomatoes.  Make sure to place these in separate bowls or on plates just to keep it organized.  
    4. 4. In a large, oven safe skillet spread about 1/2 cup of the sauce over the bottom of the pan.
    5. 5. Finely chop the basil and reserve about a tablespoon or so for later.  With the rest, sprinkle it evenly over the sauce. 
    6. 6. Begin arranging the vegetables around the perimeter of the pan working your way inward like a spiral.  
    7. 7. Be sure to alternate the vegetables.  (Yellow zucchini, eggplant, green zucchini, tomato, for example)
    8. 8. Once everything is arranged nicely. Make a cartouche out of the parchment paper.
      1. 1. Take a sheet of parchment paper and fold it in half.
      2. 2. Fold in half one more time.
      3. 3. Fold in half over the diagonal three times.
      4. 4. Place the point of the parchment paper over the center of pan, and cut the paper at the back where it makes a radius of the pan.
      5. 5. Cut the tip of the parchment.  
      6. 6. When you unfold it, it will look like a large circle with a hole in the middle.  
      7. 7. If the steps are confusing to read, here’s a vid.
    9. 9. Place the cartouche over the pan.
    10. 10. Bake at 325ºF for 30-35 minutes.
    11. 11. Remove the cartouche from the pan.
    12. 12. Garnish the ratatouille with the remaining basil. Serve.
    John Tufts is an award-winning actor and author.  In addition to being paid to travel the world to wear tights and fight with swords, he has also written a book about the food of Shakespeare’s England called Fat Rascals: Dining at Shakespeare’s Table.  His book is available at john-tufts.com/fatrascalsbook.  His upcoming food history web series, Eatso Facto, will start airing in September.  You can follow him on Instagram at @johnnymtufts.  He lives in New York.
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