Some say (ok, it’s Wikipedia) that Bill Buford is credited with coining the term “dirty realism“. I have no idea if that’s true. What I do know is that Mr Buford was editor of Granta and an excellent captain he was too.
Anyway, Mr Buford has also long evinced a lively interest in food – not just any food, but good food. And he recently betrayed his predilection once again, with an ode to Ratatouille. (Not just any Ratatouille, but an exquisite, properly made dish, each of the five key ingredients cooked separately, never in the same pan. I urge you to read Mr Buford’s piece in The New Yorker, if you can. But if not, some of the highlights (and perhaps, more crucially, the recipe, is below).
First, Ratatouille is made with just five key ingredients (not counting garlic, which is there too): Eggplant, red peppers, onions, tomatoes, and zucchini.
Second, the quantities are roughly equal (by eye).
Third, and most important, the ingredients are all cooked separately. “Only at the end,” Mr Buford writes, “were the five cooked vegetables mixed together – in a pot, with shots of red-wine vinegar (a bright, slightly racy acidity, to balance the dish’s sweetness) – and heated gently. The process is said to produce a more animated jumble of flavors than if all of the ingredients had been plopped in a pan at the same time.”
The third point is probably the key difference between a vegetable mush and a Ratatouille. A mush may be flavourful, but is reminiscent of baby food. But a Ratatouille is a metaphor for our times. Just as the salad bowl, rather than the melting pot, has become a metaphor for the way a multicultural society can integrate different cultures while they maintain distinct identities, a Ratatouille is a proud chorus of different voices.
And delicious too.
2 lbs. tomatoes, preferably fleshy plum tomatoes (rather than a juicy heritage breed)
A good olive oil
A pinch of sugar
A pinch of saffron (optional)
4 medium-sized red bell peppers
3 large onions, peeled and roughly diced
3 medium-sized eggplants, peeled and roughly diced
2 cloves of garlic, peeled
Sprigs of rosemary and thyme, tied together into a bouquet garni, plus 1 tsp. of thyme leaves
A handful of basil leaves (optional)
3 medium-sized zucchini
1-3 Tbsp. red-wine vinegar, according to taste
A dozen pitted black Kalamata olives (optional)
Salt and pepper
- Prepare tomatoes. Heat oven to 225 degrees. Make a small slit at the top of each tomato without cutting into the flesh. Prepare two bowls, one with ice water and one with just-boiled water. Drop the tomatoes into the hot water, and, if necessary, weigh them down with a heavy slotted spoon, to keep them from floating. After 2–3 minutes, check the skin for wrinkles and signs that it is separating from the fruit. Test by pulling off a bit of skin with a paring knife. If it comes off easily, pull tomatoes out, one by one, and drop them into the ice bath. After a minute or two, retrieve them and peel off the skin with your fingers. It should come right off, though some tomatoes might need to be peeled with a knife (not to worry, it’s normal).
- Place a sieve over an empty bowl. Cut the peeled tomatoes into quarters, then scoop out the seeds with a spoon and place them into the sieve. Set aside.
- Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Brush the paper with olive oil and season it lightly with salt and sugar. Place tomatoes on the paper cut-side down and brush them, too, with the oil. Cook for 30–60 minutes, depending on the size and density of tomatoes, until they are cooked but still firm. Cool and set aside.
- While tomatoes roast, stir the tomato pulp and seeds in the sieve vigorously with a spatula or wooden spoon, to extract the maximum possible liquid. You should have between ½ cup and 1 cup. Pour the liquid into a saucepan, place over low heat, and simmer, gently, until the volume is reduced by half. Set aside.
- If you are using saffron, hydrate in water and set aside.
- Prepare peppers. Raise the oven temperature to 375 and insert a medium-sized tray. When hot, remove the tray and splash with olive oil, then add peppers and, with a pair of tongs, roll them in the oil to cover. Return the tray to the oven. Check after ten minutes. If the peppers have begun to brown, flip them with the tongs. Check after another 10 minutes and repeat, until peppers are nearly black on all sides. Remove the tray from the oven and, if needed, wrap peppers in a piece of aluminum foil (the trapped steam helps loosen the skin). When peppers are cool enough to touch, peel off the skin with a paring knife. Remove the stems and seeds and cut peppers into quarters.
- Prepare onion. Heat a sauté pan over a low flame. Season onion with salt and pepper. Increase the heat to medium-high and add 1-2 Tbsp. olive oil to the pan. Add onion and cook, tossing occasionally until soft but not browned. Drain in a colander to remove excess oil and set onion aside.
- Prepare eggplant. Wipe out the sauté pan and place over a low flame. Season eggplant with salt and pepper. Increase the heat and add a little less than 1 Tbsp. of olive oil to the pan. Add eggplant—don’t move or shake until it begins to color slightly. Flip eggplant with a spatula and cook until tender. Drain in a colander and set aside.
- Begin assembly. Place a medium pot on a low burner. Chop tomatoes into bite-size pieces and add to the pot, then add 2 Tbsp. of tomato water. Chop peppers into bite-size pieces, then add to pot and stir. Add onion, then eggplant. If the mixture seems dry, add more tomato water. Add garlic and bouquet garni. Add saffron, if using. Cover. Check after 5 minutes to insure that the mixture is not boiling. Stir gently. After another 5 minutes, remove lid, stir, and simmer.
- Prepare zucchini. Cut zucchini into bite-size pieces and toss in a bowl with 1 Tbsp. olive oil, a few twists of black pepper, and reserved thyme leaves. (Do not salt: salt will liquify zucchini and prevent them from crisping up.) Heat a sauté pan over a high flame and add zucchini. Toss occasionally, until zucchini show color but are still crisp: that is, bright green with bite. Remove from the pan and drain in a colander, then salt to taste. (This was not how Michel Richard prepared zucchini—i.e., cooked lightly at the end—but a trick I learned from a fabulous chef at the Café Bellecour, in Lyon, eight years ago, a woman whose name I wrote down but appear to have lost.)
- Finish assembly. Taste for seasoning and for moisture, and add more salt and pepper and tomato water as needed. Add vinegar, then mix in zucchini and let cook until heated through. Add olives if you’re using them (my touch, I admit, because this version is so jammy that it calls out for something salty). Remove bouquet garni and garlic. Dress with torn basil leaves. Serve with roasted chicken, French fries, toast, nothing at all, or just about anything.