ratatouille — my tribute to Julia Child

Julia Child was our first celebrity chef.  She changed the way Americans think about food, encouraged us to eat better, and inspired us to cook more often.

She was not afraid of fat and in retrospect we can say she was slightly ahead of her time.  Ongoing research is chipping away at our fat fobic fears, the latest piece being a study published recently finding no connection between dairy fat or butter and subsequent cardiac death.  She would have liked that a lot.  And so do I.

She is reputed to have used unpleasant words like “nutrition terrorist” or “food nazi” when referring my fellow dieticians.  And in many ways, I am with her on that one too.

But I have to confess, her recipes never did it for me.  Loved her presence, loved her attitude, loved her influence on the American palate, but I did not like the way she wrote her recipes and, through I was given her two volume set as a wedding present, I have only used the books once.  By the time I got married, I had already lived in France and was committed to la cuisine française.  But we were hosting a Sunday brunch and among the dishes I prepared was her version of ratatouille, an eggplant casserole.  Julia warned that a really good ratatouille is not one of the quicker dishes to make because each vegetable was to be cooked separately.  She was right.  Her method probably does make a more elegant and refined dish.  But I confess, I do not have the patience, so the recipe that follows is my simplified adaptation.   I have also take the liberty to add back in metric measures she so meticulously replaced with cups as she was putting her book together.

INGREDIENTS for 4 to 6 people

eggplant, 1 small, generous ½ pound or 250 grams

zucchini, 1 to 2, generous ½ pound or 250 grams

flake salt, about 1 ¾ teaspoons or 5 grams

extra virgin olive oil, 4 tablespoon / 60 ml

garlic clove, 2 each or 6 grams

yellow onion, medium, generous ½ pound or 250 grams

red or yellow peppers, 2 to 3, generous ½ pound or 250 grams

tomatoes, 1 pound or 450 grams

METHOD

Wash all vegetables.   Remove stem from eggplant and cut in pieces.     Julia’ version says to peel the eggplant, but I would rather leave the skin on because it adds good color.  Slice off the ends of the zucchini and cut in rounds.  Julia wants us to salt the vegetables and let them stand for about 30 minutes to render their water.  I tend to skip this step.  Peel and slice onion.  Peel, seed, and chop the tomatoes. Remove stem and core from peppers and chop in pieces.  Peel and crush garlic.

Julia lays out an elaborate sequence for cooking each vegetable separately.  This method, however, will work and to my taste is somewhere between almost and just as good.  Soften onions in 2 tablespoons olive oil and gently cook them until they turn translucent, begin to caramelize, and turn light brown.  Add the tomatoes and gently simmer for several minutes.  Then add eggplant, zucchini rounds, peppers, crushed garlic, salt, pepper, and remaining olive oil.  Cook covered to encourage the vegetables to sweat out the water, then remove the cover so that excess liquid can evaporate.  Keep heat medium to low to avoid scorching.  Simmer until vegetables have softened and excess water has been reduced, but the vegetables retain their shape and texture.  In a pinch, pour off excess liquid, reduce in another pan, and add back to vegetables.  Serve hot as a vegetable accompaniment; serve cold as an appetizer.

METRICS

Proportions noted above will make about 4 cups cooked vegetables.  Served as a hot vegetable to accompany the protein of your choice or as a cold appetizer garnished with chopped parsley, recipe makes 6 servings 130 calories each.  Served as a main course with a slice or two of ham and some crusty bread, recipe makes 4 servings 200 calories each

Recipe inspired from Julia’s Eggplant Casserole — with tomatoes, onions, peppers, and zucchini.  Volume I of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, Simone Beck, published by Alfred A Knopf, New York, 1967

Per Serving for 6 people: Calories 130, Fat 10g, Saturated Fat 1.5g, Sodium 330mg, Carbohydrate 12g, Fiber4g, Protein 2g.
Per Serving for 4 people: Calories 200, Fat 15g, Saturated Fat 2.0g, Sodium 500mg, Carbohydrate 18g, Fiber5g, Protein 3g.