I was 12 years old when first introduced to eggplant. My mother was slowly making her way through Julia Child's French Chef cookbook when she announced that we would be making an odd sounding dish called ratatouille, made with eggplant and zucchini. Despite my misgivings, I helped mom prepare the dish and was surprised to find that I liked it very much. I still have my mother's tattered and food stained copy of The French Chef, and that's the recipe I still use to make ratatouille. It's a great recipe and I always think of that first time we made it together.
I follow Julia's recipe faithfully, with one exception. I add some sprigs of thyme to it, because I love the taste of thyme and the woodsy note it adds to the dish. Although I used pesto on the fish that accompanies this dish, thyme is my featured herb this week for Weekend Herb Blogging. Several months ago, I planted some common thyme, which is traditionally used for cooking, and it's a handy thing having ready access to one of my favorite herbs. And it's cheaper to grow it than buying a big bunch of thyme at the grocery store, which usually goes to waste. If you do plant thyme, make sure it gets full sun. Thyme develops a fungus easily if it doesn't get enough sun and good air circulation.
Over the years I've tried several different ratatouille recipes and I always return to Julia's recipe. There's a split in opinion over two issues when you make ratatouille. First, should you salt the eggplant and zucchini? I do, mostly for tradition's sake and to reduce the moisture in the veggies. But, you can skip that. Two, should you cook everything together at one time? Or should you cook the ingredients separately, combining them at the end for a final cooking? I do the latter, as called for in Julia's recipe, because it produces a better tasting ratatouille. The eggplant and zucchini retain their own character and shape if done this way. But, there are many people who swear by recipes that cook everything together. This one takes a little longer, but it's worth it.
The recipe is fairly simple really. After slicing and salting the eggplant and zuchinni, you set it aside for 20 minutes. That gives you time to peel, seed, and juice the tomatoes, and slice the onions and green peppers.
After the eggplant and zuchinni have released their liquid, you fry them in batches until slightly brown. The salting is beneficial because it reduces the amount of liquid in the recipe, as well as the cooking time. Some people prefer the salting step because it makes the eggplant less bitter. But, that doesn't bother me. I do it to reduce the moisture in the dish as it cooks. It makes a big difference.
After cooking the eggplant, you slowly cook the onions, peppers, thyme and garlic until soft. The sliced tomatoes are then placed on top of the onions and the mixture cooks until the liquid evaporates.
The finished ratatouille can be served hot or cold. In fact, I prefer it cold the next day because the flavors improve after it sits in the fridge overnight. Serve it with fish or any meat, wrapped in crepes, or on sandwiches.
Ratatouille With Petrale Sole (Julia Child, The French Chef)
Note: We really love ratatouille, so I doubled this recipe. If you want leftovers, I suggest you do the same.
1/2 lb. eggplant
1/2 lb. zucchini
1 tsp. salt
Peel eggplant (or not, I didn't) and cut into lengthwise slices 3/8 inches thick. Cut ends off zucchini and slice lengthwise into 3/8 inch pieces. Toss slices with salt and place in bowl. Set aside and let stand for 20 minutes.
4 or more Tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cups sliced yellow onions
1 cup sliced green peppers
2 cloves mashed garlic
2 or 3 sprigs of thyme
salt and pepper
1 lb. tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and juiced or 1 cup drained plum tomatoes
3 Tablespoons chopped parsley
Heat olive oil in a heavy skillet and saute eggplant and zucchini to brown slightly on both sides, adding more oil if necessary. Remove the slices to paper towels. Cook onions and pepper slowly until they are soft. Sir in garlic, thyme, and salt and pepper to taste. Slice the tomatoes into strips and place over the onion mixture. Cover and cook for 5 minutes over medium low heat, then uncover and raise the heat. Boil for several minutes until tomato juice has almost boiled away. Season with salt and pepper and fold in parsley.
Assembling and final cooking
Spoon 1/3 of the tomato mixture into the bottom of a 2 1/2 quart flame proof casserole or saute pan. Arrange half the eggplant and zucchini on top, then half of the remaining tomato mixture. Cover with the remaining eggplant and zucchini, then the last of the tomato mixture. Place a cover on the casserole and simmer over low heat for 10 minutes. Uncover, tip casserole and baste with the juices rendered and correct seasoning If necessary. Raise heat slightly and boil slowly until juices evaporate.
2 Tablespoons pesto
4 Petrale sole fillets about 5 oz. each
Season the sole fillets with salt and pepper. spread pesto on one side of each fillet. Heat a large nonstick fry pan over medium-high heat. Add the fillets, herb sides down, and cook about 2 minutes. Turn and continue to cook until the fillets feel firm, about 1 minute more. Remove from the heat. Serve fish on top with ratatouille, along with crusty bread.
You can also make "Napoleons" by splitting each fillet along the middle seam. Place a large spoonful of the ratatouille on a plate and place one half of the fillet on top of the mixture. Then place another large spoonful of ratatouille on top of the fish, placing the second piece of fish, herb side up, on top of the ratatouille. Add a little more pesto on top of that. Serve with hot french bread.