The French Secret to Ratatouille, a Last Taste of Summer

Ratatouille in pan on a wood table
It was only with ratatouille that I realized how important the cook-things-separately approach is in French cooking.Photograph by Olena Danileiko / Alamy

“Ratatouille”: the word evokes French vegetables, meatless health, sunshine, and a jolly Pixar film that, for about six months, my young twin sons watched, seated at the kitchen table, while waiting for their dinner. The word also evokes memories of disappointment. I’ve always loved the idea of the dish but was never thrilled with what I made, and eventually I stopped trying. That was before I learned three essential ratatouille principles, which were proffered—very casually—when I was helping out in a French kitchen, and which changed my approach irrevocably.

The kitchen was at Citronelle, the Washington, D.C., restaurant run by the great Michel Richard. The executive chef, David Deshaies, was showing me how to prepare ratatouille. “It is made with the five vegetables that every family can grow in its home garden,” he said—nothing exotic, nothing hard to find (essential principle No. 1). He then counted them off, on his fingers: “Eggplant, red peppers, onions, tomatoes, and zucchini.” (Plus garlic, which somehow is never treated as a sixth ingredient, even though no ratatouille can be made without it.) I remembered Deshaies’s point several years later, when I found myself, on an early-autumn day, in the Alpine village of Lanslebourg, overlooking a river and a row of domestic gardens. There they were, in leafy abundance: all five ingredients, in their end-of-summer ratatouille bounty.

The quantities are roughly equal (essential principle No. 2), a matter of eyeball judgment rather than weighing on a scale, since the onions are dense, tomatoes fairly weighty, zucchini less so, peppers hollow, and eggplants only marginally heavier than air. In an equally casual spirit, they are cut up in chunks: i.e., no fine dice. “We once made a nouvelle-cuisine version, with small and perfect cubes,” Richard said, watching David and me. “But it was too fancy. Ratatouille is a rustic dish.”

Most importantly (principle No. 3), the ingredients are cooked separately—never in the same pan. “What you want is vegetable jam,” Deshaies said. I thought, Who wouldn’t want that?

In Richard’s kitchen, the onions, eggplants, and zucchini were sautéed in olive oil, one after the other. The peppers were cooked, on a tray, in a hot oven. The tomatoes were the most involved. First, they were skinned in accordance with a particular French practice involving two baths of water, one just-boiled and the other iced. (“The French never eat the skin. It comes out in your poop!” Richard told me confidently. ) The naked tomatoes were then cut into quarters. The juices and drippy, jellylike seeds got scooped out and dropped into a sieve atop a bowl, producing, by the end of the session, a formidably goopy, splashy pond of tomato water. (This was for later, to be added when completing the ratatouille, a magic hydrating element.) The tomato quarters, meanwhile, now looking like red flower petals, were arranged on a baking sheet, painted with olive oil, sprinkled with salt and sugar, and roasted at a low heat until they were plump and swollen. They are the jammiest of the jammy ingredients.

Only at the end were the five cooked vegetables mixed together—in a pot, with shots of red-wine vinegar (a bright, slightly racy acidity, to balance the dish’s sweetness)—and heated gently. The process is said to produce a more animated jumble of flavors than if all of the ingredients had been plopped in a pan at the same time. After learning the recipe at Citronelle, I didn’t think further of it, except to register that, after having given up on ratatouille for many years, I liked this one so much that I have made it every summer thereafter, without fail. It was only upon serving the dish to friends, who inquired about the recipe, that I learned that most people don’t bother cooking their ratatouille ingredients separately, and that many didn’t know it was a possibility. Even the most recent and generally pretty impressive edition of “The Joy of Cooking” tells you to heap the onion, peppers, and tomatoes into a pot together. The practice put me in mind of the last pre-Citronelle ratatouille I’d made, which was M. F. K. Fisher’s version, learned from “a large strong woman” from “an island off Spain.” This, too, was a dump-and-stir preparation, and it was then stewed for five to six hours. It tasted of mush.

It was only then that I realized how important the cook-things-separately approach is in French cooking. Even vignerons, when bottling a wine made of different grape varieties, can either toss everything in a vat together and ferment the lot (creating what is sometimes known as a “field blend”) or vinify each one separately and blend at the end, producing a more controlled product in which you can often taste each grape. And many famous French stews turn out—at least in their classic, cheffy version—to be minimally stewed. Consider, for instance, a navarin d’agneau, a spring-lamb-and-vegetable dish named after the navet, or turnip, which was the traditional accompaniment until the acceptance of the potato in the late eighteen century. While the meat roasts, the vegetables are cooked one by one—turnips (if you’re a traditionalist) or potatoes (if not), baby carrots, small onions, and spring peas—and only combined at the end.

The practice doesn’t seem to have a name, which is a curiosity for a culture that seems to have one for every possible culinary preparation or tool. At least, I haven’t found a name yet, although I may have come across the first instance of the method being described, in Menon’s “La Cuisinie?re bourgeoise,” or “The Household Cook,” from 1746. (The “bourgeoise” of the title, in the context of a cookbook, could be loosely translated as “of the home” or “of the family.”) There are many “cuisine bourgeoise” books in France—almost every accomplished chef has written for the layman—but Menon’s was the first. In the book’s second edition (from 1759), he describes two ways of making duck and turnips: the home cook’s approach, browning the bird in a pot with flour and butter, and tossing in the other ingredients as you prepare them (some broth, your sliced turnips, a bouquet garni, salt, pepper), and letting them cook until they are a stew. Finish it with a splash of vinegar and you have, in the same pot, both the duck and a thick sauce to serve with it. “Voila? la fac?on de faire le canard aux navets a? la Bourgeoise.” Or there is the cheffy approach, in which the duck is cooked on its own, as are the turnips (turned like almonds and cooked in“bon bouillon”), as is the sauce (a reduction of veal jus and a vegetable coulis). By the time your sauce is finished, your duck will be ready for it. Voilà: the things cooked separately, together.

Ratatouille

Serves 8

Ingredients
  • 2 lbs. tomatoes, preferably fleshy plum tomatoes (rather than a juicy heritage breed)
  • A good olive oil
  • A pinch of sugar
  • A pinch of saffron (optional)
  • 4 medium-sized red bell peppers
  • 3 large onions, peeled and roughly diced
  • 3 medium-sized eggplants, peeled and roughly diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, peeled
  • Sprigs of rosemary and thyme, tied together into a bouquet garni, plus 1 tsp. of thyme leaves
  • A handful of basil leaves (optional)
  • 3 medium-sized zucchini
  • 1-3 Tbsp. red-wine vinegar, according to taste
  • A dozen pitted black Kalamata olives (optional)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Basil leaves
Directions

1. Prepare tomatoes. Heat oven to 225 degrees. Make a small slit at the top of each tomato without cutting into the flesh. Prepare two bowls, one with ice water and one with just-boiled water. Drop the tomatoes into the hot water, and, if necessary, weigh them down with a heavy slotted spoon, to keep them from floating. After 2–3 minutes, check the skin for wrinkles and signs that it is separating from the fruit. Test by pulling off a bit of skin with a paring knife. If it comes off easily, pull tomatoes out, one by one, and drop them into the ice bath. After a minute or two, retrieve them and peel off the skin with your fingers. It should come right off, though some tomatoes might need to be peeled with a knife (not to worry, it’s normal).

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2. Place a sieve over an empty bowl. Cut the peeled tomatoes into quarters, then scoop out the seeds with a spoon and place them into the sieve. Set aside.

3. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Brush the paper with olive oil and season it lightly with salt and sugar. Place tomatoes on the paper cut-side down and brush them, too, with the oil. Cook for 30–60 minutes, depending on the size and density of tomatoes, until they are cooked but still firm. Cool and set aside.

4. While tomatoes roast, stir the tomato pulp and seeds in the sieve vigorously with a spatula or wooden spoon, to extract the maximum possible liquid. You should have between ? cup and 1 cup. Pour the liquid into a saucepan, place over low heat, and simmer, gently, until the volume is reduced by half. Set aside.

5. If you are using saffron, hydrate in water and set aside.

6. Prepare peppers. Raise the oven temperature to 375 and insert a medium-sized tray. When hot, remove the tray and splash with olive oil, then add peppers and, with a pair of tongs, roll them in the oil to cover. Return the tray to the oven. Check after ten minutes. If the peppers have begun to brown, flip them with the tongs. Check after another 10 minutes and repeat, until peppers are nearly black on all sides. Remove the tray from the oven and, if needed, wrap peppers in a piece of aluminum foil (the trapped steam helps loosen the skin). When peppers are cool enough to touch, peel off the skin with a paring knife. Remove the stems and seeds and cut peppers into quarters.

7. Prepare onion. Heat a sauté pan over a low flame. Season onion with salt and pepper. Increase the heat to medium-high and add 1-2 Tbsp. olive oil to the pan. Add onion and cook, tossing occasionally until soft but not browned. Drain in a colander to remove excess oil and set onion aside.

8. Prepare eggplant. Wipe out the sauté pan and place over a low flame. Season eggplant with salt and pepper. Increase the heat and add a little less than 1 Tbsp. of olive oil to the pan. Add eggplant—don’t move or shake until it begins to color slightly. Flip eggplant with a spatula and cook until tender. Drain in a colander and set aside.

9. Begin assembly. Place a medium pot on a low burner. Chop tomatoes into bite-size pieces and add to the pot, then add 2 Tbsp. of tomato water. Chop peppers into bite-size pieces, then add to pot and stir. Add onion, then eggplant. If the mixture seems dry, add more tomato water. Add garlic and bouquet garni. Add saffron, if using. Cover. Check after 5 minutes to insure that the mixture is not boiling. Stir gently. After another 5 minutes, remove lid, stir, and simmer.

10. Prepare zucchini. Cut zucchini into bite-size pieces and toss in a bowl with 1 Tbsp. olive oil, a few twists of black pepper, and reserved thyme leaves. (Do not salt: salt will liquify zucchini and prevent them from crisping up.) Heat a sauté pan over a high flame and add zucchini. Toss occasionally, until zucchini show color but are still crisp: that is, bright green with bite. Remove from the pan and drain in a colander, then salt to taste. (This was not how Michel Richard prepared zucchini—i.e., cooked lightly at the end—but a trick I learned from a fabulous chef at the Café Bellecour, in Lyon, eight years ago, a woman whose name I wrote down but appear to have lost.)

11. Finish assembly. Taste for seasoning and for moisture, and add more salt and pepper and tomato water as needed. Add vinegar, then mix in zucchini and let cook until heated through. Add olives if you’re using them (my touch, I admit, because this version is so jammy that it calls out for something salty). Remove bouquet garni and garlic. Dress with torn basil leaves. Serve with roasted chicken, French fries, toast, nothing at all, or just about anything. A wine pairing from Jessica Green (my wife): a white from the southern Rh?ne—like a Saint-Péray, a Condrieu, a white C?te du Rh?ne, or an Alpine Roussette de Savoie—which are low in acidity but high in fruit, to match the ratatouille’s vegetable-jam qualities.