(Salt and Pepper)
Every summer, in France, my father-in-law Philippe (who owns and runs Le Sauvage Hotel) makes us a Southern French dish called Ratatouille. Basically, it is a ragout of summer vegetables. The traditional recipe uses a mixture of dried herbs typical of the Provence region of France called simply herbes de Provence. It can be bought easily in any French grocery store but Philippe doesn’t usually use it in his version of Ratatouille. He often vacations in the south of France with his wife and youngest son. The herbs grow easily in the wild there bringing hot dry breezes scented of rosemary, thyme and other aromatics. So when he makes Ratatouille in the lush Franche-Comte he doesn’t use the same recipe but rather the same idea by using the herbs that fragrance his garden.
In the courtyard of the old manor where he lives there is a big old bay laurel tree that someone planted long ago. Every year, when he prunes the tree, he dries some of the branches in the kitchen. When he’s cooking his version of ratatouille he usually plucks a couple of dried leaves off the branch and lets them simmer with the vegetables so that the dish is infused with the flavor of his garden. We often eat it on steamy rice sitting outside around a table in his garden, soaking up the long sunny summer evenings with a glass of rosé. As a result, there is something very special about his ratatouille that I can’t duplicate even when I use his bay leaves… it is the association of the flavors with the garden and those long leisurely summer nights.
In the Austin area, ratatouille is an autumn dish. At the beginning of November, my garden is laden with eggplants, zucchini and other things I need for this dish. The Provencal herbs grow well in my garden even though it is beginning to get chilly out. So, I simmer my stew with a little bouquet of rosemary, thyme, fennel, sage and basil tied tightly together with a piece of butcher string. My little family gathers together around the table in our toasty house on a dark evening to eat my local version of “Papie’s” ratatouille… but it will never match up to his. This recipe belongs distinctively to grandpa.
DIRECTIONS: Philippe always chases me out of his kitchen with a glass of wine, insisting I sit at the kitchen counter and just watch him cook. As a result, I’ve had to glean the recipe from afar. The quantities of vegetables vary but one of his signatures is that he usually omits onions which are typically part of a traditional ratatouille. He slices all the vegetables thickly and then cuts them into bite size pieces which he simmers with copious amounts of olive oil in a heavy enamel pot for at least an hour. I’ve looked over at least five recipes that complicate the process by first sautéing or broiling the eggplant and adding it later… However, in Philippe’s version the eggplant soaks up the oil and melts into the other veggies which is entirely pleasant. This recipe can be as simple or complicated as you’d like!