The wonderful movie “Ratatouille” from Disney-Pixar introduced a new generation to one of the great classic dishes. The story revolves around a rat named Remy who has an extraordinary sense of smell that makes him a genius at combining flavors and ingredients. He dreams of becoming a master chef in one of the greatest restaurants in Paris, Gusteau’s.
Remy has an old, discarded copy of Chef Gusteau’s cookbook and it becomes a source of inspiration for him. He learns how to combine ingredients, make the famous dishes of the restaurant, and innately understands the genius behind Gusteau’s creations. Gusteau “speaks” to Remy, acting as his imaginary soul mate and counselor.
Through a series of exciting adventures, Remy winds up on the doorstep of Gusteau’s and meets Linguini, a bumbling kitchen worker. They become friends and an unusual arrangement it made where Remy “directs” Linguine in preparing some new and daring meals for the restaurant. Remy is finally able to create all the masterpieces he has been reading about in Chef Gusteau’s cookbook and he helps bring the restaurant back to prominence. After watching the movie, thousands of children wanted to learn to make ratatouille themselves. Suddenly a long-forgotten classic was chic again.
This reminds me of my relationship with my own grandmother. She guided my eager young hands when I was a child, teaching me the subtleties of rolling dough and pulling taffy. Even though I lost her when I was very young, her influence has continued to inspire me, She is the reason I have my passion for food and wine, for cooking, and for creating family traditions in the kitchen. Like Gusteau acts as a mentor for Remy, my grandmothers’ memory continues to encourage my own creativity.
Pixar is located in the San Francisco Bay Area, and when the producer, Brad Lewis, wanted authenticity for the kitchen scenes, he went to one of the top American chefs, Thomas Keller in nearby Napa Valley. Keller allowed Lewis to intern at his restaurant French Laundry for two days, something most foodies dream of. Keller served as food consultant for the film, lending his considerable skills to the details drawn by the animators.
Made with a variety of vegetables, ratatouille is known in one variation or another in most Mediterranean cuisines. There is a lot of debate on the proper way to make ratatouille, but the basic ingredients usually include tomatoes, garlic, onions, zucchini, eggplant, and bell peppers, with some combination of herbs such as basil, bay leaf, thyme, or herbes de Provence. Some people cook all the ingredients together creating a vegetable stew of sorts. Many cooks, including Julia Child believe in layering which helps to keep the vegetables firmer. There is little doubt, however, that the dish originated in the area around Nice, France, on the French Riviera.
Originally stewed in copious amounts of olive oil, more recent versions are utilizing healthier techniques that still add a lot of flavor. One of my favorites is grilling the vegetables individually and then combining them. This way they each cook for the correct amount of time, maintain their own flavors, and don’t become mushy, the most common problem with many ratatouilles.
Rent Ratatouille and get inspired all over again. Then head for the kitchen and create your own version of this fantastic age-old dish. Bon Appetit!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
You can use this same stuffing with hollowed out bell peppers, eggplants, pattypan squash, onions, etc. These shells need to be partially or totally pre-cooked, either in the oven or on the grill. Or combine the vegetables with cooked orzo, couscous, rice, or farro for a healthy and delicious salad.
Kitchen Skill: Slicing on the Bias
Slicing on the bias means to cut at about a 45-degree angle, a deep diagonal. Imagine a clock, if the item you are cutting is pointing at 12 and 6, your knife would be point at about 11 and 5. Cutting ingredients this way gives you maximum surface area for grilling, etc. The more surface that touches the hot grate, the stronger the grilled flavor will be. This technique is often used for sliced baguettes as well as vegetables.
- 4 large, ripe tomatoes
- 1 small eggplant, preferably Japanese, ends removed
- Kosher salt
- 1 large Vidalia or red onion, ends removed and peeled
- 1 medium red bell pepper, stemmed and seeded; ribs removed
- 1 small zucchini, ends removed
- 1 small crookneck squash, ends removed
- 1 ripe avocado, peeled and seed removed
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 1-1/2 tsp tandoori seasoning
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 to 2 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 tsp balsamic vinegar
- 3/4 cup grated mozzarella cheese
- 3 tbsp chopped fresh thyme leaves
- 1 cup panko breadcrumbs
- 1 tbsp melted butter
- 2 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese
- Prepare Tomatoes and Eggplant: Cut a 1/2-inch slice off the top of each tomato. Discard the tops. Using a spoon, scoop out soft center of tomato and discard. If you are working with very meaty tomatoes, also scoop out some of the flesh, to within about 1/2 inch of the skin. Leave enough of the tomato so that it will be sturdy enough to support the ratatouille.
- Lightly salt the inside of the tomatoes and turn them, cut side down, on a paper towel-lined baking sheet.
- Slice eggplant into 1/2-inch thick slices. If you are using a Japanese eggplant, slice it on the bias to give you more surface area. Lightly sprinkle salt on both sides of each slice and set it on the same baking sheet as the tomatoes. Salting helps remove some of the liquid, making the tomatoes and eggplant sturdier.
- Build and light a medium-sized charcoal fire in the grill or preheat a gas grill to medium (350°F to 450°F). Move the charcoal to one side of the grill, creating a two-level heat. If using gas, turn off half the burners. Clean and oil the grates before cooking.
- Prepare Ratatouille: Cut onion into 1/2-inch-thick slices; skewer to hold together. Slice bell pepper lengthwise into 1/3-inch-thick slices. Cut zucchini and squash on the bias into 1/2-inch thick slices. Leave avocado halves intact. Brush any excess salt from the surface of the eggplant slices.
- Lightly brush the sliced vegetables with oil. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper to taste (do not re-salt the eggplant).
- Grill vegetables over direct fire until tender, turning once. The onions will take 8 to 12 minutes. The peppers, zucchini, squash, and eggplant will take 6 to 8 minutes.
- Transfer to a cutting board and chop coarsely and transfer to a large mixing bowl. Sprinkle with the tandoori seasoning and pepper. Toss to evenly disperse the seasoning. Drizzle with the lemon juice and vinegar, and toss with the cheese and thyme.
- Prepare Topping: Combine topping ingredients in a small bowl. Toss to thoroughly combine.
- Spoon the ratatouille into the tomatoes. Sprinkle on the topping. Place tomatoes on the grill and cook until the cheese is melted and the vegetables are warmed through, 8 to 12 minutes. Serve immediately.
- VARIATIONS: If you prefer, you can prepare this on the stove using a grill pan and finish them under the broiler. You can also use this same stuffing with hollowed out bell peppers, eggplants, pattypan squash, onions, etc. Or combine with cooked orzo, couscous, rice, or farro for a healthy and delicious salad.