Don’t Make Ratatouille Like That Rat in That Movie

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 22 2012 11:02 AM

You’re Doing It Wrong: Ratatouille

1345647157000
Ratatouille

Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo for Slate

Five years ago, Pixar released Ratatouille to great critical acclaim. In the film, an adorable rat with a dream of becoming a chef befriends a clumsy young cook and infiltrates a fancy restaurant kitchen. In the climactic scene of the film, the rat wins over a fastidious restaurant critic with his elegant variation on ratatouille.

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

Unfortunately, the adorable rat was doing ratatouille wrong. The version of ratatouille featured in Ratatouille, also known as confit biyaldi, is a visual delight: razor-thin slices of tomato, zucchini, and eggplant arranged artfully over a bell-pepper purée and baked for hours. But ratatouille is not supposed to be a visual delight; it’s supposed to make short work of as many late-summer vegetables as possible simultaneously. Ratatouille was invented by Provençal peasants, and Provençal peasants possessed neither the time nor the inclination to slice vegetables with such precision or to bake them as gently and slowly as possible. What they had the time and inclination for was stew.

Advertisement

But ratatouille isn’t quite as simple as throwing chopped vegetables in a pot with some olive oil and cooking them until they fall apart, either. The key vegetables of ratatouille—eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, bell pepper, onions, and garlic—all cook at different rates. If you try to cook them all together, the eggplant will still be hard when the tomatoes have turned to mush. You can sauté the vegetables individually to make sure each achieves its perfect level of tenderness before you combine them all, but that will take you back into multi-hour territory.

Another approach: Time the addition of each vegetable to the pot according to its hardiness and hope that they’ll all finish cooking together. This is a step in the right direction. The only problem is the zucchini, which can go from unpleasantly crunchy to unpleasantly mushy with no territory in between when you simmer it with other vegetables. The solution is to use the same technique I suggested for zucchini soup: Roast the zucchini to dry it out, gently caramelize it, and make it appropriately tender. While the zucchini’s in the oven, sauté the onion, eggplant, and bell pepper. The zucchini and the eggplant will be ready at about the same time—at which point you combine them with chopped tomatoes and simmer them down to a rich, thick, silky paste.

Precision in measuring is pointless when you’re making ratatouille. You want roughly equal amounts (by weight) of eggplant, zucchini, and tomato, and smaller amounts of bell pepper and onion—but if your garden is producing way more of one than the others, use what nature gives you. Ripe tomatoes, zucchini, and eggplant picked at the height of seasonality usually taste good, but even the ripest eggplant needs a little help in the flavor department. That’s where copious amounts of garlic and olive oil come in, plus a scattering of fresh basil and thyme. Slightly less orthodox is the addition of oil-cured black olives—the wrinkled, faintly bitter kind—which stud the vegetable mélange with little pockets of intense saltiness. (Olives are, of course, one of the many gastronomic specialties of the south of France.)

For additional Frenchiness, put on Vincent Delerm’s eponymous album and serve with hunks of baguette smeared with chèvre and glasses of ice-cold rosé.

Ratatouille
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Time: About 1 hour

2 medium zucchini or yellow squash (about 1½ pounds), roughly chopped
⅓ cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and black pepper
1 large yellow onion, roughly chopped
1 small head of garlic, separated into cloves, peeled, and roughly chopped|
1 large eggplant (about 1½ pounds), roughly chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 large red or yellow bell pepper, roughly chopped
1½ pounds fresh Roma tomatoes, roughly chopped
½ cup chopped fresh basil
½ cup oil-cured black olives, pitted and roughly chopped

1. Heat the oven to 425°F. Toss the zucchini with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and a little salt and pepper on a 13- by 18-inch baking sheet. Roast, stirring every 15 minutes or so, until fully tender and golden brown, about 30 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, put the remaining ⅓ cup olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the eggplant and thyme, season with salt and pepper, and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the eggplant is partially tender and has reduced considerably in volume, about 10 minutes. Add the bell pepper and continue cooking and stirring for another 10 minutes.

3. Stir in the tomatoes and zucchini, cover the pot, and reduce the heat to medium. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have broken down and the mixture is thick. Stir in the basil and olives, then taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature. (Store leftover ratatouille in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week.)

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 23 2014 12:43 PM Occupy Wall Street How can Hillary Clinton be both a limousine liberal and a Saul Alinsky radical?
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Head of Security Had a Legacy of Sabotage
  Life
Outward
Sept. 23 2014 1:57 PM Would A Second Sarkozy Presidency End Marriage Equality in France?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 11:13 AM Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 11:48 AM Punky Brewster, the Feminist Punk Icon Who Wasn’t
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 1:50 PM Oh, the Futility! Frogs Try to Catch Worms Off of an iPhone Video.
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 23 2014 1:38 PM Why Is Fall Red in America but Yellow in Europe? A possible explanation, 35 million years in the making.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.