Yesterday, I was inspired once again to buy local, seasonal produce and see what I could make with it. The inspiration came from this wonderful French documentary, Food Beware: The French Organic Revolution (more on that below*). When I got to the store, I wasn't set on a French menu by any means, but I just did this staring thing I've been doing lately--I stand in front of the produce wall and stare straight ahead. I soften my eyes and don't try to focus on anything, and see what colors stand out to me. This is not unlike the way I look at a painting by Monet or Renoir--there's that Frenchiness again. This time, eggplant and squash called to me. And that one plump red bell pepper, all alone. So I was struck with the solution of ratatouille, and just went all-out French and bought a whole chicken to roast. Why the heck not?
[veggies roasted and ready for layering]
I love ratatouille (the dish and the movie). Leave it to the French to invent a tasty dish that combines vegetables that peak at the same time and are usually a little too productive. There are just a few basics to making ratatouille: zucchini, eggplant, and red bell pepper are the most common ingredients. Often, yellow squash, tomatoes, onions, garlic, olives, and herbs are added, in part or combination. It's typically stewed in a pot, but it's so versatile that you can do pretty much anything you want with it, like put it on a pizza or tuck it between the layers of a lasagna. And it is the quintessential French comfort/soul food, as illustrated by Remy the rat:
My idea was to roast the ratatouille veggies and toss them together as a side dish, but I remembered some things I had kicking around in the fridge--a little ricotta, a little Parmesan. So I cooked up some rice and made a sort of layered casserole out of everything, which not only incorporated a starchy food into the mix, but it made everything I'd bought stretch a little farther. I like that. Plus it tasted awesome. And it's a great partner to a simple roasted chicken.
[final layer of vegetables, ricotta, and Parmesan, about to go in the oven]
ratatouille and rice gratin
- 1 medium eggplant
- 1 zucchini, sliced into rounds about 1/4" thick (or a little thicker)
- 1 yellow squash, sliced into rounds about 1/4" thick
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled
- extra-virgin olive oil, about 3 tablespoons
- freshly ground black pepper
- 1 red bell pepper
- 1 1/2 cups cooked rice, at room temperature, or scant 1 cup uncooked white rice and 1 1/2 cups chicken stock
- 1/2 cup ricotta cheese
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 2 Tablespoons chopped fresh herbs (I used a combination of parsley, thyme, oregano, basil, and rosemary, all chopped up together)
- Heat the oven to 400 to roast the veggies (alternatively, you can grill them outside on a gas or charcoal grill). Slice the eggplant into rounds about 1/4" thick. Place a layer of eggplant rounds on a large plate, sprinkle salt over them, and cover with a paper towel. Continue layering eggplant rounds on top of paper towels, salting each layer. Finish with a layer of paper towels on top. Press down slightly and let eggplant sit for about 20 minutes (while you chop the other things) to sweat out bitter juices. After 20 minutes, wipe most of the salt off the eggplant slices with the paper towels, and they're ready to use.
- Place eggplant, zucchini, and squash slices along with garlic cloves in a large roasting pan (or use two roasting pans if necessary to avoid over crowding). Drizzle with the olive oil and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Use your hands to toss everything and spread the salt and pepper onto both sides of all the vegetables. Roast for about 1 hour, until everything is soft and fragrant, tossing once or twice during roasting. Remove and set aside to cool slightly. Reduce the oven to 350 to bake the gratin.
- Roast the red bell pepper: there are several options for doing this. You can slice it thickly and roast it along with the other veggies. Or you can hold the pepper above an open gas flame, rotating it until the skin blackens. Or you can core it, slice it in half lengthwise, flatten the halves slightly with your palm, and broil it for about 15 minutes, until the skin blackens. Whatever method, try to peel off most of the blackened skin, as it is papery and can be rather unpleasant to eat.
- If you need to cook some rice, bring the chicken stock to a boil in a small saucepan over high heat. Once it boils, stir in the rice, reduce heat to very low, cover with a tight-fitting lid, and steam for about 16 minutes, until the liquid is absorbed. Fluff with a fork and reserve.
- To assemble, place half the vegetables (including red bell pepper) in the bottom of a 2-quart baking dish. Taste a little piece of squash, and if it needs some more salt and/or pepper, sprinkle a little over the layer of vegetables. Scatter half of the herbs over them. Top with all the rice, evening out the rice to form a somewhat even layer. Dollop half the ricotta over the rice and top with half the Parmesan. Then layer the remaining vegetables over the rice and cheese. Sprinkle with more salt and pepper, if desired. Dollop with the last of the ricotta and top with the remaining Parmesan and chopped herbs.
- Cover with foil or a lid and bake at 350 for 20 to 30 minutes, just to heat everything through and let the ricotta get really soft.
makes 4 to 5 side-dish servings or 2 main-dish servings
*I've seen dozens of documentaries about food waste, genetically modified foods, the struggling and the successful small farmer in America, but this film really shook me up. I mean, it's FRANCE. France, to me, has always been the golden child of simple, daily marketing and menus dictated by what's in season. But guess what? France is not immune to the problems of commercial agriculture, and surely neither is Italy, Spain or any other place where a designated foodie might dream of living. All God's children got troubles.