I know, it doesn’t look like much. But one of the wonders of ratatouille is how the marriage of so many different vegetables – onion, zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, garlic – makes each flavor emerge distinctly from within the stew. The dish is often described as evoking the sun-soaked vistas of Provence, from where it originates. Ratatouille is truly an argument, a case study really, for eating seasonally. I can’t imagine how lackluster this dish would feel eaten in the middle of a Midwest winter, with under ripe produce flown in from halfway across the continent. It is the perfect dish for right now. Equally tasty eaten warm or cold, ratatouille works well for the transitional moment between high summer and early autumn. The flavors of these vegetables taste of summer, but the heartiness of the stew is enough to take off the slight chill of early October. Another magical thing about ratatouille is that you expect all these ingredients, thrown in a pot and cooked for hours on end to dry up, but in fact the vegetables release their juices, creating a lot of syrupy, fresh liquid. It’s delightful to peek under the lid and witness it happening.
I had planned to make ratatouille all summer but never got around to it. I’m glad I waited because the vegetables at the farmer’s market last weekend were in fine form. I hemmed and hawed a bit over what recipe to use. I thought it would be a good opportunity to use my copy of Richard Olney’s Simple French Food, which I have read but not cooked from. Alas, there is no ratatouille recipe there. I pondered revisiting Mastering the Art of French Cooking but didn’t want to dirty every dish in the kitchen, as Ms. Child’s recipes are wont to do. But really, a more pressing call came in light of this situation you here:
You see, last week I was at my favorite thrift store, browsing the cookbook section when my eyes landed on 18 of the above books. If you’re not familiar with this series, it’s a Time-Life production from the late 1970s-early 1980s (also happens to be my current favorite fashion era), and it was overseen by none other than Richard Olney himself. I often read that he considers the project his legacy. And what a legacy….these books are gorgeous. The format is also one of the best I’ve ever seen. The first section of each book has beautiful, plentiful color photographs of techniques and methods, almost always accompanied by articles. The second section has recipes chosen by Olney and his staff. And the recipes come from a wide array of sources, such as Olney, M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, and our other known friends in the kitchen. Not only did I fill a huge gap in my collection in one day, but they were each $1.99 and I had a 30% off coupon from having donated a bag of clothes and books the same day. I was thrilled! But also…feeling a little ashamed of walking (hobbling) into the house with such hoarding evidence in tow. What better way to ward off accusations of hoarding than to actually use the books to cook something? I turned to the Vegetables volume and found a recipe for Ratatouille Niçoise.
The covers of the books might make you think that the recipes are too old and perhaps unappetizing but I promise you that in most cases, that is not true. I have read through a few of these so far and am so excited about using them more regularly. If one were to learn everything that is conveyed here, well, one could probably start a small cooking school.
A page from the volume Dried Beans and Grains:
As you might have guessed, these books are out of print and can only be found secondhand. I would suggest checking thrift stores and garage sales. You could also look on Craigslist, Etsy, or eBay, though that does take a little bit of the fun out of it. As for me, I only need four more volumes: Variety Meats, Beverages, Sauces, and Wine. Another time I’ll tell you about another series from Time-Life, Foods of the World.
One of the things that drew me to this recipe was that you don’t saute everything separately, as it is commonly advised. The results are nothing short of amazing.
Adapted from Time-Life’s Vegetables
1/3 cup olive oil
2 medium onions, diced
2 medium eggplant, diced
4 small zucchini, diced
8 plum or Roma tomatoes, peeled and diced (you can blanch the tomatoes to peel them)
4 bell peppers, assorted colors, diced
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2-3 dried bay leaves
salt and pepper
fresh basil (optional)
Heat a heavy pan (I used enameled cast iron) and add olive oil. Add the onions and cook until soft and yellow, about ten minutes. Do not let them brown. Add the eggplant and about 1 tsp of salt. Cook for a few minutes longer. Add the tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, and garlic. Mix everything. Add salt and pepper – be generous, especially with the salt. Add the bay leaves and fresh thyme. Cover and cook on low heat for at least one hour, but preferably longer. I did three hours. Check the seasoning and add more salt and pepper if necessary. Add torn pieces of fresh basil before serving. It is good eaten right away, or cold or at room temperature the next day.