Ratatouille call makes mom's dream come true

June 12, 1996|By Cathy Thomas | Cathy Thomas,ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

I almost dropped the phone. Alexis wanted a recipe for ratatouille.

Every day, my daughter Alexis calls from college and often our conversations turn to the subject of cooking. That's not the point. It was the ratatouille part that puzzled me.

Throughout her childhood it was a conundrum. This child loved vegetables, but hated ratatouille (pronounced rat-tah-too-ee). The flavors in this traditional dish from Provence, a southern region in France, sing with the flavors of a summer garden -- eggplant, summer squash, bell peppers and sun-ripened tomatoes. The flavors meld perfectly, accented with olive oil, onions and fresh herbs. Delicious.

But she said it was gross.

She had lots of opportunities to try it. Every June, when early summer produce piles up in farmer's markets and supermarkets, I start the ratatouille dance in my kitchen. It's a celebration of the season. And throughout the summer, as my garden overflows, I make it again and again.

Sometimes I serve it cold, spread on toasted French bread or crackers as an appetizer. Sometimes I serve it hot as a main dish or a side dish with grilled meat, chicken or fish. Leftover ratatouille is divine. I use it to fill crepes, omelets and pita bread. Toss it with pasta or rice.

She hid it. Spit it out. Sulked.

Now she wants the formula. So I asked her what changed her mind.

"When I was 3, Christy told me ratatouille was made with rats," she explained in a matter-of-fact tone. "You know how I was always worried you'd slip something weird -- maybe Bambi or Thumper -- into the soup. Rodent ratatouille seemed plausible. Besides, you know how convincing Christy can be."

So it had been her big sister, Christy, who had told the rat tale. How clever. Christy loves ratatouille. She ate her sister's portions.

But food revenge is sweet. Today, final exams are over. And in a small college-apartment-size kitchen in San Francisco, Alexis is whipping up three versions of ratatouille.

One will be a fast, skillet-style ratatouille accented with slices of Italian sausage. She'll serve it over rice. One will be layered with Swiss cheese, topped with bread crumbs and baked until golden brown. And one, made in a shallow gratin pan, will top the bell pepper-eggplant mixture with a layer of overlapping tomato and zucchini slices.

When finished, she'll place a tortuous phone call to her sister. She'll describe every detail. The smell. The texture. The taste.

Payback.

Here are the three recipes. The ingredients are fairly consistent, eggplant, tomatoes, summer squash and bell peppers are the basics, but cooking techniques and ingredient proportions change from recipe to recipe.

By the way, the name ratatouille is derived from the French word "touiller," meaning to mix or stir together. No rats.

Skillet ratatouille -- with or without sausage

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 pound hot or sweet Italian sausage (see cook's notes)

about 2 tablespoons olive oil

5 Japanese eggplants (cut into 1/2 -inch slices) or 1 large eggplant (cut into quarters lengthwise and then into 1/2 -inch slices)

2 large onions, cut in half and thinly sliced

2 yellow bell peppers, cored and seeded, cut into strips

1 red bell pepper, cored and seeded, cut into strips

4 medium-large ripe tomatoes, about 1 pound, cut into 1-inch chunks

pinch of ground fennel

3 to 4 yellow zucchini or yellow patty pan squash, sliced

1/3 cup coarsely chopped fresh basil

salt and pepper to taste

cooked rice or pasta

garnish: grated Parmesan cheese

Line a microwave-safe plate with 3 layers of white paper towels. To reduce fat, poke holes in sausage on all sides with a fork. Place in a single layer on towels and cover with a paper towel. Microwave on high power for 4 minutes. When cool enough to handle, remove sausage and cut into 1 1/2 -inch slices.

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a Dutch oven or large, deep skillet. Add sausage and cook on medium-high heat, stirring or shaking pan frequently, to brown sausage on all sides. Remove sausage with a slotted spoon.

Add eggplant, onion and bell pepper. Add 1 or 2 tablespoons of olive oil if pan looks dry. Cook on medium heat for about 8 minutes, stirring or shaking pan frequently, until vegetables start to soften.

Add sausage, tomatoes, fennel and squash. Cover and simmer on low until vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes.

Add basil and season to taste with salt and pepper. If there is a lot of juice, strain off the solids (either by using a slotted spoon or pouring mixture through a colander, reserving juices). Cook juices on high heat until reduced by two-thirds. Return vegetables to reduced juices.

Presentation: Place rice or pasta in shallow bowls. Ladle ratatouille on top. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Serve with crusty, warm bread.

Cook's notes: If using ratatouille as a filling or topping, cut the vegetables smaller and reduce the cooking time. If I'm using it cold, I omit the sausage. If omitting the sausage, start with step No. 3. Place 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil in the pan and add the vegetables as directed.

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