Last year I endured an entire summer without making a single batch of ratatouille, of which I have no one to blame but myself. This year, I vowed, would be different. I had long been intrigued by Richard Olney’s iteration of the classic ratatouille stew — he serves it froide, or cold, for lunch, and paired with a light, dry, well-chilled rosé — of which he raved about its syrupy, vivid, and satisfying qualities.
Ratatouille is, at heart, humble, country food, and Olney seems to agree: “Many people insist on… refinements, [that are] to me, without interest and not at all in keeping with the basic nature of a dish whose origins are simple and unpretentious.” In The French Menu Cookbook, Olney fits ratatouille into his ‘Simple Summer Luncheon à la Provençal,’ as the first course in a menu that also includes a blanquette of beef tripe with basil, steamed potatoes, tossed green salad, cheeses, and cherries with fresh almonds.
His words guided our thoughts the afternoon we decided to host an impromptu park picnic. The crown jewel of the evening would be none other than our vermillion Le Creuset pot, brimming over with cold stew. I made a few other simple dishes that evening, including a red leaf lettuce salad studded with chopped flat beans, red onion, corn, carrots, fennel, and a flurry of chopped herbs. A dish of glowing, egg-like new potatoes, with skins as delicate as tissue paper, were halved and coated in salted butter and avocado oil, dusted heavily with smoked paprika, and finished with crinklings of tarragon. And finally, we popped open a jar of my dilly beans, addictive in their uncanny similarity to potato chips. But most importantly, an awesome picnic is a group effort, and other treats materialized throughout the night, including a cluster of wine bottles, halved radishes, fresh cucumbers, charcuterie, a multitude of cheeses, and heirloom tomatoes.
Sadly, our days for picnics here in Montreal are numbered. I pulled on two sweaters this morning before making breakfast, and my sturdy denim jacket wasn’t quite enough protection on my bike last night. Troubling to say the least, and all the more reason to make a point to whip up a batch of ratatouille right away, before the opportunity eludes us yet another year, and all of these gorgeous vegetables disappear from the markets.
A few notes about Olney’s recipe: he suggests preserving the leftovers in sterilized glass jars — a wonderful idea. He stresses the importance of a ratatouille “well laced with thyme and garlic” and “impeccable” olive oil. And finally, he includes one fussy detail, in which he advises briefly separating the cooked vegetables from its liquid. The juice can then reduce separately into a thick syrup, and is then re-added to the pot. I found this totally unnecessary for what is purportedly such a ‘humble’ one-pot dish, and the results, I promise, are still spectacular.
Richard Olney’s Ratatouille Froide, adapted
1 pound white onions
2/3 cup olive oil
4 large, firm, well-ripened tomatoes (we used Romas)
1 pound sweet peppers (a mixture of red, yellow, and green)
1 pound eggplant (he recommends the small violet elongated variety; we love the tiny, lavender-hued, bulbous specimens from Birri, at the Jean-Talon Marche)
1 pound baby zucchini (the smallest available; I don’t think you can find these are the markets anymore, so any size would be fine)
6 cloves garlic
pinch of Cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon thyme leaves
a bouquet of parsley and 1 bay leaf
handful of finely chopped parsley (of course, we used basil instead!)
freshly ground pepper
—Peel and chop onions, and saute in 1/3 cup olive oil. Do not let them brown. Mince garlic and add to pot.
—Peel and seed tomatoes (we score tomatoes with an X and then blanch for 30 seconds for easy peeling).
—Dice zucchini, peppers, and eggplant into 1 inch square pieces. In a second pan, saute each separate vegetable until golden brown, and set aside. I did this in a couple of batches because there were so many vegetables. (We also used a good amount of goose fat in the saute process. Worth it, promise). You don’t want the vegetables to steam — we let them get nice and golden brown.
—Add cooked peppers and eggplant to the pot with onion and garlic. Add tomatoes. Let simmer, stirring gently. Add the thyme, cayenne, parsley, and bay leaf.
—Bring to a boil, and then reduce to a faint simmer, and cover with lid.
—Cook for two hours. At least! I think I went even longer. You’ll find that as the vegetables simmer and cook, they release even more liquid. It’s incredible to watch and defies logic — instead of drying up in the pot, the vegetables just get juicier, stickier, and more syrupy. Oh, and the smell will be incredible.
—Finish with the remaining olive oil, freshly torn basil, and pepper, stirring carefully to avoid crushing the vegetables. Let cool, then serve with crusty bread and a big glass of wine. I found the Lirac red of Château Mont-Redon to be a wonderful, charming pairing.
And come on, did you really think I wouldn’t mention this?