Another semester has come and gone. At the end of each one, regardless what happens during the term, I am always overcome with wanting to hug each of my students and send them out into the world with a macaron. Maybe two.
This class was no exception. Despite a rough and rocky start, I finally learned to relax around them after Spring Break. The change was very welcome. I started spending less time
freaking out planning my lessons and more time enjoying talking about some of the topics that interest me the most: history and process, food and memory, taste and identity, sustainability and individual responsibility, inspiration and experimentation.
The first time that I taught a class on French food, it was the summer that the movie Ratatouille came out. I saw the movie by myself before accompanying two separate groups of students to the theater. Maybe it was the summer heat, or maybe my brain was addled from having seen the movie three times in a row, but I remember standing on the subway platform and cooing at a big, fat rat. ”Oooooooh!!!” I squealed, “Look at the cutie pie! He’s got a . . . Subway sandwich!!!! Awwwwwww!!!”
Is it surprising to hear that people moved away from me?
For those of you who haven’t seen it, Ratatouille is a marvel of a movie, a treasure trove of tidbits that you can use to teach French food and culture. Want to explain a brigade by showing a kitchen hierarchy? Want to show the importance of technique and apprentissage? Want to begin a discussion about whether or not cuisine is an art form? Want to perfectly represent archetypal figures of French gastronomy like the stubborn chef, the restaurant critic, or the gastronome? Want to kick off a conversation about Proust? Want it in French and English?
Ratatouille is the movie for you!
As some of you might know, Thomas Keller was the consulting chef for the film. His reinterpretation of the classic ratatouille was also a re-imagining of a popular Turkish dish called İmam bayıldı, which literally means “the imam fainted (because it was so darn good).” Keller’s ratatouille was first published in The French Laundry Cookbook as an accompaniment to guinea fowl. This ”crêpinette de byaldi“ subsequently morphed into the confit byaldi featured in the film.
Unlike the traditional ratatouille for which all the vegetables are either stewed together or layered in the same pot and simmered until soft, Keller’s version has you make a simple pipérade over which you artfully layer very thin slices of eggplant, yellow squash, zucchini, and tomato. It takes a little bit more work, but the result is something much more elegant.
I deviated from the original recipe in order to keep the dish’s preparation more in line with the one seen in the movie. The recipe from The French Laundry Cookbook has you cover the confit with aluminum foil and tightly crimp it around the dish. However, I didn’t want a watery ratatouille, so I cut parchment paper to fit and laid it on top of the confit — just like Rémy.
This single dish probably has the greatest carbon-footprint out of any that I have made this year. None of the vegetables are in season. All of them were grown in Peru, with the exception of the tomatoes which came from Holland. However, I wanted to serve my students something that they have been seeing and talking about all semester.
Unfortunately, they polished it off before I could even get a taste of the finished product. I assume it was good, but I have also seen students eat all kinds of weird stuff! In any case, I look forward to revisiting this recipe later in the summer when local eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, and squash are around.
For the pipérade
1 large white onion, chopped
1 yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded and diced
1 orange bell pepper, cored, seeded and diced
1 herb sachet made from a sprig of fresh parsley, a sprig of fresh thyme, a sprig of rosemary, and a bay leaf tied up in a cheesecloth bundle.
Salt and freshly-ground white pepper
To assemble the final dish
4 Roma tomatoes, thinly-sliced
1 small eggplant, thinly-sliced
1 yellow squash, thinly-sliced into rounds
1 zucchini, thinly-sliced into rounds
3-4 cloves of garlic, finely minced
1 teaspoon of fresh thyme, minced
2-3 tablespoons of olive oil
Salt and freshly-ground white pepper
How to prepare:
1. Pre-heat the oven to 325°.
2. To prepare the pipérade, heat about 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil in a medium-sized sauté pan over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the onions. Sauté them until they just begin to soften. Add the diced yellow bell peppers and the herb sachet. Continue to cook the vegetables until they are soft, but not browned. Remove and discard the sachet. Adjust the seasoning.
3. Spread the pipérade in an even layer in the bottom of an oven-proof baking dish. Begin arranging the sliced vegetables over it. You can either do this in rows like I did, or you can create a circular pattern by starting at the edges of the dish and moving towards the center. In any case, you want to alternate and overlap the vegetable slices so that they create a pleasing design.
4. Mix together the garlic, thyme, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste in a small dish. sprinkle this mixture over the vegetables.
5. Cut a piece of parchment paper to lay on top of the confit. Press it down gently to adhere. Roast the confit until the vegetables have cooked through (the eggplant will take the longest). This should take between 45 minutes to an hour. It might even take over an hour. In all honesty, I can’t really remember since I was a couple of beers in by then. Just start checking it around the 45 minute mark!
6. Remove from the oven and let it cool. The confit can be served hot, warm, or cold.