What are some of your food quirks? We all have them – things we love for no logical reason (Sara Lee poundcake for me, toasted), and things we can’t stand, for reasons good or bad (mayonnaise.) Eggplant has also long been on my no-go food list.
But where I have no problem having never developed a tolerance for mayonnaise, I feel like eggplant is something that I should learn to like. It’s apparently right up there with fatty fishes in terms of being “brain food,” and it’s loaded with anti-carcinogenic antioxidants and scads of unpronounceable chemicals that promote cardiovascular health. (Now that I write that out, perhaps it’s no big surprise that I don’t love eggplant, after all.) Health benefits aside, it’s featured in world-famous French, Italian, and other Mediterranean dishes … my wheelhouse of culinary enjoyment.
Inspiration to give the dark purple nightshade another shot finally came via Pixar, and my kids’ recent bout of illnesses that have kept us at home. I may be a few years behind on this, so you might already know that Ratatouille is a great flick. I’d even say it’s a better movie for grown-up foodies than for (my) wee ones. What you might not know, though, is that Remy – the secret rat chef – is modeled on and was “trained” by Thomas Keller, who makes even the most humble ingredients into unforgettable sensory experiences. Remy’s recipe for ratatouille was created by Thomas Keller for the movie – and so it struck me: if TK could get me to not only eat – but love, both foie gras and salmon tartar at his French Laundry, his recipe for the classic eggplant, tomato and zucchini casserole would almost certainly be my best bet for learning to like eggplant.
And so I found the recipe, generously offered in the New York Times a few years back. Written with true Keller precision and perfectionism, it was a little daunting. I did not see myself roasting and peeling peppers, or tomatoes for that matter, and I certainly was not going to be building little gorgeous individual towers of the stew.. But it was a recipe I could work with – a few tweaks to make it do-able for a family, on a weeknight. The ingredients were simple – if it were the height of summer and I had a real garden, one could assemble the whole thing without leaving home. At its heart, this is Provencal peasant food – worked on by thyme and time.
I think that pairing the eggplant with some of my favorite vegetables certainly helped, but so did the dish’s most important feature – the slicing of the vegetables to paper thinness. This not only minimizes that strange slimy sponginess off the eggplant, but allows the olive oil to thoroughly penetrate the vegetables, making them a rich and silky confit, elevating this version of ratatouille beyond its more common presentation as a chunky stew. I may need to cross eggplant off my list of culinary outcasts, at least in this recipe.
I served this alongside roasted halibut, with plenty of crusty bread to sop up the peppery, tomatoey sauce. It would be good alongside any roasted meat, or just on its own as a vegetarian entree.
(adapted generously from Thomas Keller’s Confit Biyaldi, NY Times, June 2007)
For pepper base
1 1/2 roasted red (and yellow, if available) peppers, diced fine
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 large yellow onion, finely diced
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes, mostly drained
1 sprig thyme
1 sprig flat-leaf parsley
1/2 a bay leaf
1 zucchini, sliced in 1/16-inch rounds
1 Japanese (or other small, narrow eggplant), sliced into 1/16-inch rounds
1 yellow summer squash, sliced into 1/16-inch rounds
4 Roma tomatoes, sliced into 1/16-inch rounds
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/8teaspoon thyme leaves
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oi
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
Fresh herbs, such as thyme, parsley, and chervil (optional)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.
For the pepper base, combine oil, garlic, and onion in medium skillet over low heat until very soft but not browned, about 8 minutes. Add tomatoes, their juices, thyme, parsley, and bay leaf. Simmer over low heat until very soft and very little liquid remains, about 10 minutes. Do not brown. Add the diced peppers and simmer to soften them. Season to taste with salt, and discard herbs. Reserve 1 tablespoon of mixture and spread remainder in bottom of an 8-inch casserole dish or pie plate.
Heat oven to 275 degrees and start layering the vegetables over the pepper base: Working in a circle from the outside edge in, arrange alternating slices of vegetables over the pepper sauce, overlapping so that 1/4 inch of each slice is exposed. In the center, overlap vegetables in a close spiral that lets slices mound slightly toward center. Repeat until pan is filled; all vegetables may not be needed.
Mix garlic, oil, and thyme leaves in bowl a
nd season with salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle over vegetables. Cover dish with foil and crimp edges to seal well. Bake until vegetables are tender when tested with a paring knife, about 2 hours. Uncover and bake for 30 minutes more, covering loosely with foil if it starts to brown. (Make-ahead note: at this point it may be cooled, covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days. Serve cold or reheat in 350-degree oven until warm.)
When ready to serve, combine reserved tablespoon of pepper sauce with the , oil, vinegar, herbs, and salt and pepper (to taste) in a small bowl to make the vinaigrette. Drizzle vinaigrette over the ratatouille, and serve. This is good hot, warm or at room temperature – so do as you like!
Makes about 4 servings