A vegetable stew from Provence, usually featuring eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, onions, and herbs. Served hot or cold.

The following is not a traditional ratatouille recipe by any means, but it's both delicious and filling: Heat the oil, toss in the onion, garlic, and spices. Simmer until the onion is translucent. Add the bell pepper and eggplant and cook for 3 minutes, stirring well. Add the tomato puree, sun dried tomatoes, and soy sauce. Bring to a boil, then stir and let simmer for 10 minutes. Add the zucchini, chickpeas, olives, mushrooms. Simmer until the vegetables are tender, stirring occasionally.
Combine the white wine and cornstarch in a measuring cup, and stir until the cornstarch is dissolved. Add the mixture to the vegetables and stir well. Add hot sauce to taste (although traditional ratatouille is not a hot and spicy dish). Serve with crusty bread, or over couscous or rice.

Adapted from a recipe in Vicki Rae Chelf's Arrowhead Mills Cookbook, Penguin Putnam, 1993.

Every good recipe starts wth the OED!

a. A ragout.
b. In full, ratatouille niçoise: a dish, originating in Nice, consisting of aubergines, tomatoes, onions, peppers, and other ingredients stewed in olive oil.


Fr.: the final element is app. f. touiller to stir up.

Ratatouille is, then, eggplant (aubergine being eggplant), plus other vegetables, stirred up. This sounds pretty accurate.

There are clearly all kinds of variations of ratatouille; you can alter any recipe to include whatever vegetables and degree of spiciness you want. I don't think you can call it ratatouille without eggplant, though, so keep in mind that if you hate eggplant, ratatouille is probably not what you want. A ragout of other vegetables would be good, though.

I tend to make very thick, chunky ratatouille, more like a bunch of mixed vegetables than a stew. That way you can eat it in lots of different ways: by itself, over rice, in an omelet. It's a really great breakfast food, actually; it's light enough that you can eat it right away upon getting up, and spicy enough to be interesting. And if you omit the cheese, which is just garnish anyway, it's vegan as well.

You need:

An eggplant. You want a firm, glossy one.
A zucchini or two, depending on how much you like zucchini.
Two or three ripe tomatoes.
A little tomato sauce, to even out textures and provide a base for everything.
Several cloves of garlic, diced fine. Use as many as you want.
Some yellow or white onion, diced fine, if you feel the need.
Olive oil in which to sauté things.
A saucepan and wooden spoon.
Cayenne pepper, basil, and salt and pepper, plus any other spices you want (thyme is good).
A block of good parmesan cheese, for garnish.
Optional: any other vegetables.

Chop the eggplant into half-inch cubes. Don't bother peeling it unless eggplant peel really bothers you. I tend to cut two or three round slices off the end, discarding any stem-oriented bits, lay the slices in a flat stack, then cut a grid into the stack. Voilá, perfectly cubed eggplant. You want a good two or three cups of this; use either half a large eggplant or a whole small one. If you feel the need for the eggplant to remain all white and pretty, you can sprinkle it with salt and lemon juice. Lemon juice is actually a nice thing to add to the whole dish, just be sparing with it.

Chop up the zucchini and tomatoes. I tend to cut the zucchini into smaller cubes, and the tomatoes into rough chunks (as they are going to reduce anyway), but you can do whatever floats your boat. I generally go for relative uniformity of size in the pieces of vegetable, to get a relatively uniform texture in the finished product. If you want to include any other vegetables--green or red pepper and mushrooms work well--chop them up as well. Set all these vegetables aside for a minute.

Dice the garlic as small as you can get it. I will use three or four cloves, usually, but increase or decrease according to how much you like garlic. If you want onions, dice them too. Then get out your saucepan, heat it up, and start sautéing your garlic and onion in enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. I do this over fairly low heat, and stir often, to make sure they don't burn.

When things are looking soft and translucent, and the whole kitchen smells of garlic, add the eggplant. Sauté to soften, and to get the garlic flavor good and infused, then add the zucchini and tomato. If you are including any other vegetables, add them now as well. Add a bit more olive oil to keep things from sticking to the pan, then stir it all up and sauté until the tomatoes reduce.

Spice. You want lots of basil. Lots. If you can get fresh basil, so much the better: chop or shred it and throw it in. Use the cayenne fairly sparingly, at least at first; you can add more later if you want. The same goes for the black pepper, but you do want a good shake or two of salt, especially if you are in the off season for tomatoes. Ratatouille should not be sweet; the salt cuts the sweetness of the tomatoes. Add some other spices if you like. Oregano and thyme are pretty good, and a little lemon juice is interesting. Experiment and see what you like.

Add just enough tomato sauce to give the mixture a thick liquidy base. I would probably only use a few spoonfuls; you want the focus here to be on the vegetables themselves. Stir well to mix everything up, then cover and let simmer over low heat for ten minutes or so. Then give it a taste and see how you like the spicing. Add more of whatever you feel is necessary--I generally need more cayenne, as ratatouille is supposed to be rather hot--and let simmer again to mingle all the flavors.

When you think it's done, it is. Fill yourself a bowl, and grate some good parmesan over the top. Good!

Ratatouille will keep for a week or so in the refrigerator, and is just as good cold as it is hot. It might even be better after keeping a couple days, as all the flavors will be out in full force. Keep in mind, though, that it will get more spicy as it ages. Watch your mouth.

There are two other writeups in this node on ratatouille, a dish from southern France. They are interesting because of their viewpoints of French cooking and for the ingredients suggested.

While ratatouille is not haute cuisine, let alone cordon bleu, its recorded history goes back to the early 1800’s. Like most traditional things, it has been passed down from generation to generation, adapting to the times but retaining its inherent nature.

Ratatouille has Basque roots and can be traced back to the Midi-Pyrénées Region of southwest France, a mountainous land where sheep-raising was the principal agricultural industry. At that time the dish was a stew of mutton and potatoes, which was then thickened after being served by crumbling heavy country bread into the individual bowls. The first literary mention of "ratatouille" was in the mid-1800’s. French poet and author Alfred de Vigny wrote, “It is agreeable, this mixture of potatoes, mutton and bread which is called ratatouille." De Vigny was obviously defending the dish, as it already had a poor reputation.

As early as the 1820’s French soldiers had coined the word "rata". To them it meant a hot dish of poor ingredients, badly made. There was a marching song at the time which had a refrain, "C’est pas d’la soupe, c’est du rata!" (It’s not soup, it’s rata!)

Soup in that era was the mainstay of the rural French family. La bonne soupe was on a par with le bon pain as the staff of life. Even today, many French homemakers provide a nourishing soup as the main (and often only) dish five or six evenings a week during the winter season. The French military was no exception to this practice at the time “rata” appeared in the language. Clearly, the soldiers wanted a good soup instead of what they were being served.

The combination of "rata" and "touille" is another indication of the original poor opinion of this dish. While the verb "touiller" means "to stir", it also indicates "everything indiscriminately mixed together", i.e. a mess.

The word "rata" is still defined today as a ragoût grossier, or a meat and vegetable stew of inferior ingredients. The word "ragout" itself, dating back 400 years, was originally a verb which meant "to revive the appetite (goût)". It then became specialized to mean the seasoning of a sauce intended to revive the taste of a dish.

"Ragoût" appeared just after the Middle Ages, a time when food preservation was poor and cooks often had to mask ingredients which were not entirely fresh, to put it mildly. This lead to spicy sauces and the use of various types of pepper. The French military bought in bulk, as cheaply as possible, and the cooks tried to mask the taste of tainted meat and rancid oil by using spicy ingredients.

With the usual French flair for making ordinary things taste exceptional, "ragoût" evolved, region by region, into such culinary triumphs as blanquette de veau, bœuf bourguignon, cassoulet, civet, navarin, and – yes - ratatouille.

Some of these dishes such as blanquette and cassoulet can be elaborate and a bit expensive to serve, as they often call for rich ingredients or ingredients that are commonly found only in the region where the dish evolved. To make a cassoulet, for example, calls for quite a bit of goose, and often confit d’oie is specified. Unless you happen to live in the Pyrénées area where it is produced, this ingredient will put your dish into the luxury category. Ratatouille is an exception, as it is still a simple dish that makes use of commonly-found ingredients.

At some point in its history, ratatouille left the Basque country and moved to the French Riveria. Most good cookbooks today will define ratatouille as coming from the city of Nice. "Ratatouille niçoise" does not contain mutton or potatoes as these are not native to the Riveria. Nor does it contain mushrooms, white wine, cornstarch, soy sauce, grated cheese, tomato puree, sun dried tomatoes, hot sauce, canned chickpeas, or just about any vegetables that strike your fancy.

In the south of France, ratatouille is not something you serve the boss when he comes to dinner. It is a dish that people make to use up all the eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, onions and bell peppers that are overflowing family gardens or are so cheap at the seasonal markets. It is seasoned with herbes de Provence because that is what people use in Provence. And, please, no dried lavender or orange zest. Herbes de Provence, as used in Provence, consists of six ingredients: rosemary, oregano, savory, basil, thyme and serpolet, which is wild thyme. This last ingredient, found only in Provence, is why French people are amused to find "Herbes de Provence" that have been grown in other countries.

Ratatouille is cooked in olive oil (if you can afford it) because that was the main cooking oil of the Riveria region and the taste is linked with ratatouille. Today people living outside of Provence often use a bland oil such as corn oil or rapeseed oil.

Ratatouille is not intended to have a thick sauce. It is simmered, not boiled, and the liquid reduces drastically. It can be served hot or cold. It can be eaten by itself or served over a starchy staple such as rice, although French families sop up the sauce with bread. In my family we like to stir a freshly-laid raw egg into a plate of hot ratatouille (the heat of the vegetables cooks the egg slightly); that may be a special local taste. Black olives have appeared recently as an ingredient but, again, unless you live near Nice, they will be an expensive addition to a traditional family dish.

"Le Petit Robert" ISBN 2-85036-186-0.
"La Bonne Cuisine Française" ISBN 2-263-00315-0.
"La Cuisine Provençale et Niçoise", Dominique Compans, 1995. Éditions Jean-Paul Gisserot

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