Monday, February 8, 2010

Some Days

Some days everything goes right. My hair looks good, I get an A on the paper I stayed up all night writing, spring shows up at the beginning of February, and there is no 5 o'clock traffic jam. Goodness gracious I love those days.
I've got to say though that anytime I create something that decides to turns out exceptionally well, I am pretty well over the moon. I don't care if we get hit by an unexpected snowstorm or my sister points out the Mt. Everest sized zit on my chin- I am unfazed. I am sitting on cloud 9... whatever that means, that's where you'll find me on days when my kitchen experiments really, truly move me.
Such an experience happen to me last week, although my fascination with Ratatouille began much, much before. This past summer when I finally got my hands on a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking I was really excited, mostly, I think because Amy Adams made it look so damn fun in Julie and Julia. I immediately started dreaming about hosting French dinner parties for all my friends, serving them stuffed duck and braised cucumbers. However, reality quickly set in and I realized that there was not a hope in the world that I, a vegetarian of 2 years, would be de-boning a duck anytime soon. In case you don't know, Mrs. Child's fine book is filled with whole chapters on "Sweetbreads and Brains" and "Poultry." This, along with the chapter entitled "Aspics" caused me to realize that I wasn't going to be hosting a full on French dinner party anytime soon.
There was, of course, one recipe that caught my eye straight from the beginning: Ratatouille. I found it in the vegetable section, so I rationed that it had to be safe. The name itself had me interested. I had no idea what it was or if it would be any good. From what I could gather it seemed that hours of slicing, chopping, and cooking would land you with a pot full of stewed vegetables. B-O-R-I-N-G. And so I slipped Mastering the Art of French Cooking back on my shelf and forgot about Ratatouille entirely.
That is until one fine day last week.
I'm not sure I believe in fate but last week while rereading A Homemade Life I found a recipe for Ratatouille nestled on page 124. I was feeling ultra adventurous. The sun was shining, I had the day off, and I felt a strong inclination to make Ratatouille. Lucky for me, we had all the ingredients on hand and so the chopping, baking, frying, and stirring began. Within the next couple of hours, something magical happened and I don't even know how to explain it. All those vegetables became meltingly tender, creating a kind of complex, savory broth at the bottom of the pot. The flavors fused together and became something altogether wonderful. The smell was intoxicating, and upon the first of many taste tests before dinner, I decided that vegetables had never before tasted so good. I served it to my family for dinner, and even as a side dish it pretty well stole the show. I think we were all somewhat surprised that a pot full of vegetables could create something so extraordinary.

If that isn't an episode of fate, I don't know what is.

Roasted Eggplant Ratatouille
Adapted from A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg

"Ratatouille," Molly writes, "is a good accompaniment for any kind of meat, but I like to serve it on its own, as a light meal, with a poached or fried egg on top." I'm not really into meat, so I did the fried egg thing, because, you know, eggs taste good on just about everything. Especially, I've found, on Ratatouille.

1 pound eggplant, sliced crosswise into 1-inch thick rounds
Olive oil
1 pound zucchini, trimmed, halved lengthwise, and sliced into ½-inch thick half-moons
1 medium yellow onion, thinly slice
1 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and chopped
4 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced
5 Roma tomatoes, seeded and chopped
¾ teaspoon salt
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
¼ cup finely chopped basil

Position a rack in the middle of the oven, and preheat the oven to 400°F.

Arrange the eggplant rounds in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Pour 2 tablespoons olive oil in a small bowl, and brush onto the eggplant. Flip the slices and brush the second sides as well, taking care that each had a thin coating of oil. Bake for 30 minutes, flipping the slices halfway through, until soft and lightly browned on each side. Remove from the oven and cool. Cut into rough 1-inch pieces. Set aside. (You can do this a day or two ahead, refrigerating the eggplant until you're ready to use it. It'll make the final dish a little quicker to prepare.)

Warm 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat in a dutch oven or large, deep skillet. Add the zucchini and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden and just tender, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove it from the pan, taking care to leave behind any excess oil, and set it aside.

If there is no oil left in the pan, add about 1 tablespoon; if there i still some remaining, proceed to the next step. Reduce the head to medium, and add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly softened, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the bell pepper and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally until just tender but not browned, about 6 minutes. Add the tomatoes, salt, thyme, and bay leaf and stir to combine. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook for 5 minutes. Add the eggplant and zucchini, stir to incorporate, and cook until everything is very tender, 15 to 20 minutes more. Taste, and adjust the seasonings as necessary. Discard the bay leaf and stir in the basil.

Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature, with additional salt for sprinkling.

NOTE: Ratatouille is even better on the second day or the third. If you can, plan to make it ahead of time, so that the flavors have time to meld and ripen.

Yield: 4 servings