12 September 2009

Am I Turning into Julie Powell?

Not really. But Victor came home from a business trip last night to find me cooking with a vengeance. I'd settled on ratatouille, and maybe some broiled chicken. When I decided on ratatouille, I was thinking of it as a sort of sloppy stew with eggplant, tomato, and zucchini, that you sop up with a nice arborio rice...easy. But the recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking is for something completely different: a composed casserole, with each vegetable distinct, in its place--you wouldn't believe the hours that go into making it.

However, the result was quite outstanding. Victor was not sure if it was outstanding enough to go through all that again, but I suggested it might be worth doing it for company (it doesn't just taste impressive, it looks pretty beautiful, too). And then after a few more bites, I decided it really might be worth doing again just for us.

By comparison with the ratatouille, the broiled chicken was a breeze. And its preparation neatly fit in the gaps of the ratatouille routine. Never broiled chicken before. Turned out delicious. But, overall, I have to say that cooking meat is a messy business. (We're not--by any means--vegetarians, but we cook mostly vegetarian at home.) All that grease! I remember thinking the same thing some months ago after I'd made a bunch of chicken stock...

So, what was so tough about the ratatouille? First you peel and slice the eggplant--quarter-inch thick, 3-inch long, 1-inch wide slices. Then you scrub and slice the zucchini--pieces roughly the same size. Toss the slices in a bowl with some salt and let them sit for half an hour, to draw the water out. Drain. Dry the slices with a towel. Then you separate the eggplant from the zucchini and saute the eggplant in olive oil in a single layer at a time, turning to brown lightly. Remove to a plate. Saute the zucchini the same way. I added a step, which was to layer the browned slices between paper towels to blot some of the oil.

All this browning takes a lot of oil.

Then you saute onions and peppers, throw in some garlic, pepper and salt. Meanwhile, you peel, seed, and juice a bunch of tomatoes. Cut them into strips. Lay them on top of the onion-pepper mixture. Season with salt and pepper. Cover, lower heat, wait for the liquid to be drawn out. When liquid has been drawn out, uncover, raise heat, and cook off all the liquid.

Take out a stovetop casserole. Divide your ingredients (fresh herbs (parsley, basil), tomato mixture) into thirds; divide the eggplant/zucchini slices in half. Put a third of the tomato mixture at the bottom of the casserole. Top with a third of the herbs. Then half the eggplant/zucchini (place the slices nicely). Then another third of the tomato mixture and another third of the herbs. Then the rest of the eggplant/zucchini. Then the rest of the tomato mixture and herbs. Cook covered on low heat till there's liquid at the bottom when you tip the casserole. Baste with the liquid. Then cook, uncovered, basting, till there's no more liquid.

When you're done, you have this very elegant, very beautiful, and very delicious casserole. In this case, taking all that care produces terrific results.

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