Sunday, 28 September 2014

Food That I Love: Ratatouille Niçoise

By Marie-Helene Blackmore

   Ratatouille... Even though one might argue that this dish is best enjoyed in the midst of Summer when gardens and farmers’ markets are overflowing with luscious vegetables ripened on the vines, Ratatouille has always been my favorite dish to welcome Spring. Bursting with fresh and intricate flavours, infused with garlic and Herbes de Provence, this earthy and silky French provençal stew of aubergine, courgette, capsicum, onion and tomatoes brings all the sunny tastes of the South of France in your plate.

Garlic at Frejus Market, South of France
   As its name implies, Ratatouille niçoise is a traditional French provençal dish of stewed vegetables and herbs that originated in Nice. It is often served as a side dish, but also makes for an excellent entrée, especially for those seeking vegetarian alternatives. It can be served warm or cold, on its own, with pasta, rice or with meat. While there are countless variations on this classic dish, the core ingredients are the same. This recipe makes enough to serve 4-6 people, and takes about one hour to cook (not including preparation).

Ingredients for the Ratatouille Nicoise
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves, crushed
1 small onion, diced
1 large aubergine or two small, skin on and diced
1 red capsicum, diced
3 courgettes, skin on and diced
5 tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and diced
2 bay leaves
Fresh thyme, sage and rosemary (or 1 ½ teaspoon Herbes de Provence)
Salt and pepper to taste

Cooking Instructions:
   Wash the vegetables then dice roughly all of the same size. Keep each prepared vegetable in a separate bowl. As you will see below, cooking vegetables for the ratatouille is done in a specific order.

- Cut and dice the aubergine and place in a colander. Sprinkle with salt and let sit for one hour. Salting the aubergine reduces its bitterness and also helps prevent it from soaking up too much oil when sautéed. After one hour, rinse well and dry the pieces.

Sprinkle the aubergine with salt to reduce bitterness

- Wash the tomatoes, peel, seed and roughly chop them. An easy way to peel tomatoes is to plunge them for one minute in boiling water and then in cold water.
- Peel, discard the sprout and crush the garlic.
- Peel and dice the onions.
- Cut the red capsicum in half, remove the seeds and the white membrane. Then cut and dice.
- Cut and dice the courgettes.

Olive Oil and Red Wine Vinegar - Restaurant in Gourdon, South of France
   Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a pan and sauté the garlic until it becomes golden and translucent, then add the tomatoes. Sauté for a few minutes. Add the salt and pepper, bay leaves, thyme, sage and rosemary (or Herbes de Provence). Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer while you cook the remaining vegetables in batches.

   In a separate pan, heat half a tablespoon of olive oil and sauté the onion for a few minutes. Transfer the cooked onion in a deep plate and reserve. Repeat with each vegetable in the following order, adding no more than a drizzle of oil for each batch: Capsicum, then courgettes, and finally aubergine.

   Once you have sautéed all the vegetables, transfer them back in the pan in which the garlic and tomatoes have been simmering, and cook gently for another 30 minutes to combine the flavours.

   One of the best things about ratatouille, aside from its refreshing flavors and health benefits, is the fact that the dish can be altered to suit even the pickiest of eaters. While purists would argue that you can't make ratatouille without the aubergine, almost every ingredient can be swapped out or substituted - the dish originated as a way for cooks to use whatever vegetables were fresh and in season. As with many traditional French dishes, there are as many variations as there are French chefs.

   Enjoy your ratatouille with a nice crusty baguette and a chilled glass of Bandol or Côte de Provence Rosé!

Ratatouille Nicoise - A Traditional French Provencal Dish

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