If there is one dish that characterizes Mediterranean summer food, it is Ratatouille. The very name conjures up a delightful mélange of not only flavors and colors but somehow, at least in some minds, also the sound of a drum roll by Magnus Kilian-former director of admin for Only Provence.
One of the beauties of the internet is its ability to proffer the diligent researcher almost endless streams of information. In our case of course, we think in terms of recipes. Most of them are, naturally, written by professionally trained chefs and other knowledgeable cook-type persons. In the age of the TV celebrity chef it is all too easy to follow one of these celebrities’ advice and more often than not the result is actually quite acceptable. The thing is that we often forget where cooking comes from and how it evolved. More often than not, the food we love has its origins in much simpler times and its preparation requires very few basic tools and methods.
Imagine the Provencal home of Isabeau Planque, the quintessential “ménagère” from that elusive little hill-top village in the Luberon. She cooks on her wood-fired kitchen stove and has at least one, perhaps even two cooking pots, the type hanging on a hook over the open hearth. Her kitchen is simple and very basic. Hers is not one with the 2 qt. stainless steel sauce-pan, the non-stick coated skillet, the Henckel knife and the Cuisinart blender. She does not shop in the local supermarket, but grows all of her vegetables in her garden, the one behind her house.
Now it is the height of summer and nature has prepared it’s bounty in the bright colors, the shiny skins and the luscious aromas we see and smell so often in the French open air markets.
This is what Mme. needs to make her Ratatouille and this is how she makes it:
She picks from her garden:
One large eggplant, which she calls an “aubergine”, shiny and of lovely purple color. She cuts it into slices, about 2 cm thick and sprinkles the slices with a bit of salt. This will help to eliminate the bitterness of the plant. Then she dries off the liquid, which appears after a little while and cuts the slices into squares.
A zucchini which is about 35 cm long and15 cm in cross section. She does this without the help of a measuring tape, it is just so She cuts the zucchini into 2 cm slices and squares the slices. A red and a green bell pepper are cut into half and the seeds removed. Some of the seeds are dried and kept to be re-planted next year. The peppers are cut into 5 cm squares. A big onion is peeled and roughly chopped as are 4 or 5 garlic cloves. Finally she chops about six to eight lovely, juicy, fully ripe tomatoes into chunks.
She puts her cooking pot on to the fire and adds a few sprinkles of olive oil, the one she got from her neighbours olive grove. When the oil has heated up a bit, she adds the onions and the garlic and stirs it all until the onions are softened and begin to caramelize a bit. She calls it “browning the onions”. Stoking the fire to get really hot, she then adds the eggplant, and browns it a bit as well, throws in the zucchini and the peppers and lastly the tomatoes. Soon all comes to the bubble, she reduces the heat a bit, adds a few sprigs of Thyme and a Bay Leaf (or if she has it, a bit of herbs de Provence). After a little while, when the vegetables have softened and the liquid has been reduced, she checks and adds a bit of salt. All being well, she has produced, without much effort and using the simplest tools and equipment, one of the most wonderful vegetable stews you can imagine. You could not do better, even if you were the world’s best chef.