Ratatouille... The Hard Way

09 October 2012

As with so much of the cooking that makes restaurants like Thomas Keller's French Laundry famous there's some level of decon- struction. A more attractive presentation of the main ingredients and two sauces instead of a lot of haphazard chopping that will hopefully come out in the wash when all the ingredients are thrown together into one pot. This concept is one of the main differences between what we tend to cook for ourselves and what we pay other people to cook for us in restaurants, but understanding it is a great way to make your own cooking more dynamic and rewarding.

So, the dish breaks down into three parts, a simple vinaigrette to drizzle on top. A stunning array of sliced vegetables cooked gently in the oven. And a variation on the Basque/French standby pipérade, a thick pepper and tomato sauce that's traditionally defined by the use of dried esplette pepper (but which is optional because this recipe is really about fresh vegetables not shopping for exotic spices, if you have some, use it.)

Note: you can slice all the vegetables with a sharp knife and that's a great way to improve your skills, but a japanese mandoline (vegeta- ble slicer) will give you more consistent results much faster. You can sometimes find one for as little as $20 and there's no need to spend more than $30. The only other trick is to find eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini and or yellow summer squash that are all about the same diameter as one another (about 1 1/2 inches.) Get to the farmers market early and you'll have your pick of the litter.

CONFIT BAYALDI

serves 6

Pipérade

1 large yellow onion, diced 3 red peppers, roasted, peeled, seeded and chopped finely (or just seeded and chopped) 3 medium size tomatoes, peeled and seeded. 2 cloves garlic minced 1/4 cup red wine 2 bay leaves 2 sprigs thyme 1 Tablespoon dried esplette pepper if you have it or any other dried chili you like Salt and Pepper to taste

Sliced Vegetables

1 or 2 long skinny eggplant sliced thin (less than 1/8 inch thick) 1 or 2 zucchini sliced the same way 1 or 2 yellow summer squash also sliced thin 4 or 5 roma tomatoes (or another cylinder shaped variety)

1 large clove garlic minced Vinaigrette

2 Tablespoons olive oil 1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar 1 Tablespoon chopped thyme leaves Salt and Pepper to taste

Cook the chopped onion in 2 Tablespoons of olive oil in a large saucepan with a good pinch of salt until it's getting soft and translucent. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Add the peppers, tomatoes, red wine, bay leaves and thyme and another gener- ous pinch of salt or two and a few twists of black pepper and simmer for 20 minutes or so, stirring occasionally until the sauce is nice and thick. Taste and check seasoning, adjusting salt to taste. This is a great recipe to have on hand for all kinds of things from roast chicken to pasta.

Spread the pipérade evenly across the bottom of a large, glass baking dish. Down the center of the dish lay out a row of overlapping sliced vegetables alternating between eggplant, squash and tomatoes, about 2 of each. Lean the next slices up along one end of the first row and continue spiraling outward with alternating slices until the dish is full. Mix a clove of minced garlic into 2 Tablespoons of olive oil and drizzle over your vegetable spiral. If you have extra slices make more in a smaller baking dish or sauté them and have a snack.

Cook the vegetables in a 275o oven covered with parchment paper or aluminum foil for 2 hours or until the vegetables yield easily to the point of a knife. Uncover and continue baking for another 10-15 minutes. Serve hot or let cool to room temperature. Mix together the vinaigrette ingredients and drizzle on top of the vegetables (the standard ratio for vinaigrette is 3:1 oil to vinegar, but this one has more vinegar than that since there's already plenty of olive oil in the dish and the acid is really what's adding the additional dimension, but, don't leave the thyme out!) One of the reasons ratatouille has remained a favorite for so long is that it's great hot or cold and gets better after a day or two so, make a lot one day and you'll have a quick meal ready to go for a few days after.