Food history: ratatouille

Not only do I love ratatouille, but I am also a huge, huge, fan of the 2007 Disney movie. Regardless of your age, I would highly recommend watching it.

Although previously considered an old fashioned “peasant dish,” or at best a meal only vegetarians could enjoy, the movie undoubtedly sparked a new interest in this timeless dish.

Definition: a vegetable stew of Provence, typically consisting of eggplant, zucchini, onions, green peppers, tomatoes, and garlic, served hot or cold.

Ratatouille hails from (present day) Nice, France, created by Provencal peasants; it was initially a dish made by poor farmers. It was prepared during the summer when fresh vegetables were available.

There are  a few different takes on how ratatouille got its name; there are also several different versions of the dish.

With the word itself, the one constant seems to be that “touiller” is a French verb meaning, “to stir up.” It has also been said that the first part of the word, “rata,” means “chunky stew.”

The great thing about ratatouille is its versatility – it can be cooked in different ways, using varying ingredients. You can have fun with it if you wish, layering the vegetables for a really aesthetically pleasing meal.

Although, some claim that ratatouille should not be a “visual delight.” More on this in a moment.

It can be served as an appetizer, a side dish, or the main dish of the meal; as the primary dish, it is often served with rice or couscous. And, ratatouille can be served hot or cold, or at room temperature.

While there are undoubtedly some folks who feel strongly about a “true” ratatouille recipe, it really does seem to be one of those dishes that is adaptable to what ingredients you have on hand, and your own personal preferences – for instance, whether you layer super thin slices of the veggies, or you cut them up in chunks for a more stew-like feeling.

When it comes to the ingredients, in my mind, ratatouille is primarily eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes. Many people add yellow summer squash, bell peppers, mushrooms, sweet onions, garlic, or even potatoes.

Seasonings are up to the individual cook as well, although I did see herbs de Provence listed a few places, which is what I would go with – I fell in love with that seasoning mix the first time I used it, with mini chicken pot pies.

Mark Bittman recommends using thyme or marjoram for the cooking process, and garnishing with basil or parsley. I say if you have fresh herbs on hand use whatever those are over dried.

It seems that most people believe you should cook each vegetable separately before combining in order to avoid a soggy texture. But, not all recipes reflect this.

On a personal note, I believe this is where I fell short the few times I’ve attempted ratatouille – mine has been mushy and bland. Next time, I’m cooking the veggies on their own and adding herbs de Provence.

The most important aspect of ratatouille, regardless of the changes you make, is quality of vegetables used – buy the freshest vegetables possible. This is one of those dishes that is perfect in its simplicity, without a lot of “stuff” added to it. Buy the best vegetables and the rest should fall into place.

Here are some ratatouille recipes from reputable food sites:

The aforementioned Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything also has not only a ratatouille recipe (the only cookbook I own that had one, by the way), but a ratatouille sandwich with melted mozzarella as well – just shoot me an email if you’d like either one of those.

And here are some based on the movie – “Ratatouille’s Ratatouille,” if you will.

The ratatouille version of the film technically has its own name, “Confit Byaldi,” which is a “more contemporary take on a nouvelle cuisine dish. . .popularized in The French Laundry Cookbook.”

Again, there are different versions and it’s up to you. They’re all healthy and delicious, and that’s the important thing.

Now, I’m probably going to go watch the movie for the eighth or so time.

6 thoughts on “Food history: ratatouille

  1. I found a recipe in a magazine it called for the eggplant ,zucchini, plum tomatoes ,summer squash to be sliced lengthwise brushed with olive oil and baked separately before layering in a baking dish with fresh thyme & rosemary s&p. It was delicious . Trying again today but only have dry spices so I am not expecting alot. Your idea sound good too!

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