Tips & Tricks

What Ratatouille Can Teach You About Southern French Cooking

Paired with the renowned culinary abilities of French cooks, this weather has created a cuisine that’s at its finest when summer produce appears.

In the south of France, there are 300 sunny days each year. Paired with the renowned culinary abilities of French cooks, this weather has created a cuisine that’s at its finest when summer produce appears.

Ratatouille, an embodiment of this cuisine, is a vegetable stew that appears to be a simple preparation. When you’re served some, beside a roasted chicken or a mound of rice, you see zucchini, tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes mingling saucily together.

The modern way to make ratatouille is quick and simple–that’s our method. We cut our vegetables in a fine dice so they cook faster, and we keep the pot simmering over medium heat so that all the ingredients cook down at once, yielding a healthful stew that’s ready when your stomach growls.

The old, slow method for making ratatouille, on the other hand, requires more steps than you’d have dreamed. Each of the five vegetables in the dish fries separately in olive oil, so that its texture and flavor is just so. Only then do they combine to become the delicious, savory stew–which, no matter how much you make, never yields leftovers.

Is traditional ratatouille a bit of a pain to whip up? Yes. But for Francophile Julia Child, there was a purpose beyond speed:

“Ratatouille is not one of the quicker dishes to make…This recipe is the only one we know of which produces a ratatouille in which each vegetable retains its own shape and character,” she wrote in Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

As if Child’s passion for the laborious recipe weren’t enough, Patricia Wells, another American cookbook author who fell in love with Southern France, adds one more condition: you must use only the best vegetables in ratatouille. “Old, worn, and wrinkled zucchini have no place here,” she wrote in At Home in Provence. (Wells’ recipe is quick–more like ours than Child’s.)

Other mainstays of Provençal cuisine can be just as complicated. Bouillabaisse has a long and specific ingredient list of fish found in the Mediterranean. Daube—beef stew—must be simmered for hours. You have to forage through the woods to cook any dish made with truffles.

But many summer favorites from Provence do not require as much work. Aioli refers to a huge platter of barely cooked vegetables that eaters dip into a rich, garlicky mayo. Pan bagnat is basically a pile of tomatoes, local anchovies, eggs, and olive piled inside white sandwich rolls. Platters of the region’s goat cheese demand to be eaten with nothing besides baguette.

When you love your ingredients the way the enthusiastic eaters of Southern France do (and they really eat with gusto there!), you consider how you can make the most of everything in your kitchen. Sometimes that means spending time by the stove, grinding your way through a complex recipe. And sometimes it means cutting a fresh plum and unwrapping the paper from some fromage and setting the two out on a platter..

Because here’s what the makers of ratatouille never forget: Whole foods always taste best. Fresh seasonal produce makes the meal. And every ingredient, down to the everyday onion, should be treated with care, cooked just as it wants to be cooked. Bon appetit!

(Image: HoneySuckle)

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