Ask me my favorite meal and the answer will vary depending on the time of year. Right now, I’d say ratatouille. I can’t think of a dish that better exemplifies the taste of summer.
When I eat this vegetable stew, I think back on the warm days I’ve spent growing vegetables in my garden. Maybe that makes me a bit like Ego, the food critic in “Ratatouille,” the 2007 Pixar film that tells the story of how anyone (including a rat) can cook. When Ego takes a bite of Remy the rat’s ratatouille, he’s immediately transported to the happy days of his childhood and his mother’s cooking.
If you haven’t seen the film, it’s well worth a watch. The detail of the food is impressive and the story is a good one.
I also love the dish because it incorporates a number of vegetables that you can find locally or in the garden right now, such as tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash, garlic, onion and bell peppers. Since they all are ready around the same time, I’m constantly looking to put these vegetables to use.
What’s nice about ratatouille is that you can make it simple or you can go fancy. It’s a French dish that has a variety of methods for preparation. You can chop everything up and cook it together on top of the stove. Or you can thinly slice each vegetable and layer them together over sauce and slowly cook the whole thing in the oven, as I describe in the recipe below.
I don’t believe there is a way you can go wrong, although I don’t find that one method of cooking each vegetable separately all that practical for anyone who has something other to do than spend the entire day cooking dinner.
I’ve often taken the simple method of chopping everything and throwing it all in a pot, then cooking slowly to let it all meld together. Trust me, this is delicious, but unfortunately, it doesn’t make the most attractive of presentations. It’s not all that distinguishable either.
On the other hand, if that’s the route you want to go, you don’t need much of a recipe. Just sauté garlic and onions in olive oil in a large pot, then chop the vegetables, add them in as you have them ready, and cook over low heat until everything is tender. Season with salt and herbs as you like.
But this time, I wanted to make the version of ratatouille depicted in the film. I like how the vegetables are clearly distinguishable and can make for an impressive arrangement in the pan or serving on a plate if you have the patience. It turns out that this preparation of ratatouille is a variation called confit byaldi.
Thomas Keller of The French Laundry made this method popular in one of his cookbooks in the late 1990s. Keller later served as a food consultant for the film, and the producer also spent a few days interning in Keller’s kitchen.
Confit byaldi takes a little more time to prepare, though a mandolin will make the job easier. Everything should be sliced as thinly as possible and in terms of the arrangement, it helps if your vegetables are all about the same size. I didn’t really do the best on either of those tasks, but luckily I didn’t have a food critic to impress.
I found a recipe that starts off by layering the baking dish with two sauces — a tomato and a béchamel, a basic white sauce. That’s different from the tomato and pepper sauces that are often used. But I found it an appealing combination, and it sounded more practical. You can use your favorite tomato sauce, whether that’s homemade or not doesn’t matter. The vegetables are the star.
When it comes to layering the vegetable slices, I found the easiest method is to arrange several pieces together in your hand and then fit them into the dish, rearranging to keep things neat. It doesn’t have to be perfect. I did find I had to use a couple of baking dishes to fit everything, though.
You can eat this all on its own or serve over pasta, rice, couscous or crusty bread.
1 ½ cups tomato sauce
1 small onion
2 cloves garlic
A small bunch of fresh thyme
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup milk, warmed
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
2 medium zucchini
3 small eggplant
1 medium yellow squash
6 medium tomatoes
Grated Parmesan cheese, for serving
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
In a baking sheet, casserole dish, or large cast-iron pan, spread the tomato sauce over the bottom. Chop the onion and garlic and spread those over the sauce. Strip the leaves from the thyme sprigs and sprinkle half over the sauce.
Make the béchamel by melting the butter over medium heat in a small pot. When melted, add the flour and allow to cook for a minute or two until browned. Slowly whisk in the milk. When smooth, allow it to come to a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally until thickened. Remove from the heat and season with the nutmeg, a few grinds of black pepper and ¼ teaspoon of salt. Stir the béchamel sauce into the tomato sauce in the bottom of your pan or dish.
Thinly slice the zucchini, eggplant, yellow squash, and tomato. A mandolin works well for all but the tomato, for which you may want to carefully use a sharp knife. Slice the eggplant last, as it will quickly turn brown.
Arrange several slices of the vegetable in your hand, then place into your pan over the sauce. Repeat with the same order of vegetables until they’re tightly packed and the pan is full.
Sprinkle ½ teaspoon of salt and the remaining thyme over the vegetables. Cover with a piece of parchment paper and bake in the oven for 50 – 60 minutes. Serve warm, topped with Parmesan.