Saturday, March 30, 2013

Remy's Ratatouille


As I watched the Pixar movie Ratatouille to do some "research" for this week's recipe, I couldn't help but get teary eyed. I'm a sucker for a good underdog story, and Remy, the rat who wants to be a chef, is most definitely an underdog. The poor little guy has such a gift and has to battle prejudices to simply do what he loves. While the rat/cooking metaphor might not work for everyone, can't we all sympathize with someone who is told they can't do something because of something they can't change? Sex, race, physical ability... this is only the start of a cumbersome list of ways that people are held down. Ratatouille serves as a reminder that when given a chance, people (and rodents) can do extraordinary things. To honor this message, I made Remy's Ratatouille this week.


About Ratatouille
Ratatouille is a French dish from Nice, and it is considered a "peasant food," basically meaning that it is simple to find the ingredients and inexpensive to make. With only four main ingredients-- eggplant, tomato, squash/zucchini, and bell pepper-- and a touch of olive oil, this dish comes from the French word touiller, which means to toss. Ratatouille is typically sautéed and served as a side dish or stew. Over time, people have added and omitted things based on their preference, just like with all classic dishes.

That brings us to the movie version, which maintains the integrity of the ingredients while changing up the "touille" part. For those of you who have not seen Ratatouille (SPOILER ALERT), the protagonist rat Remy reimagines the peasant dish, making it elegant and refined, and ultimately beating the odds to realize his dreams and win over a haughty food critic. Chef Thomas Keller (The French Laundry, Per Se) was consulted during the creation of the film in order to guide the crew through the dynamics of a professional kitchen and how food is prepped, cooked, plated, and served. He also provided the revamped Raratouille recipe, actually called Confit Byaldi. If you are familiar with Keller and his recipes, you will first notice the relative simplicity of this dish. This video has some words from Keller about his role in the movie.

Regardless of the chosen method of preparation or supplementary ingredients, the key to Ratatouille is to have wonderfully fresh ingredients. Like in a well-balanced orchestra, where neither flutes nor tubas should dominate, the vegetables in a good Ratatouille should work harmoniously.

Choosing the Recipe
My parents were in town this week (woooo hooooo!), and both of them have been diligent with their Weight Watchers Points Plus program. I don't know a ton about the new Points Plus system, but I do know that keeping food relatively low in fat, low in carbs, high in protein, and high in fiber is their guide to sensible eating. I decided to browse my Master Plan List for a recipe that would compliment those dietary choices... there weren't many! However, Ratatouille was on the list and I knew I could work with an all-veggie dish, add a baked piece of fish, and I would be in the WW happy zone.

Ratatouille, in modern days, brings the Pixar movie to most of our minds, and I was no exception. After crying my way through the film (Remy's big, innocent mouse eyes made me gush), I knew I had to make Remy's version of the dish. As I mentioned before, it is actually called Confit Byaldi (there is not touiller involved whatsoever), but I will just call it Remy's Ratatouille (it sounds way cuter).

A little rat with big dreams
Memorizing the Recipe
I knew from the get-go that my version of Remy's Ratatouille would be a little more like the cartoon and a little less like Thomas Keller's Confit Byaldi. With hosting my parents, I didn't want to pick anything overly complex or onerous. They didn't travel across the country to see me stressing out because my home-cooked meal is not of French Laundry caliber. Nevertheless, there are three main components to the dish that I wanted to include: a piperade (pepper and tomato sauce) that goes in the bottom of the pan, the thin-sliced vegetables, and the vinaigrette for the top. All three of them needed to be present for the dish to come together.

The Verdict
Although Remy's Ratatouille was labor intensive (amazing that a rat could pull it off!), it was well worth the effort to produce this fresh, healthy, beautiful side dish. While the thin-sliced vegetables made the bulk of the dish pretty mild in flavor, the coming together of the balsamic, oil, and piperade at the bottom of the pan created an explosion of flavors that I could have eaten by itself or put on top of pasta. It had acidity, a little fat, and a warm, slow-cooked meltiness to it that I can't imagine acquiring any other way than by baking it low and slow. Served with some flounder and a Brussels sprout salad, the meal was a lovely, simple delight. And if you are looking for a healthy party piece, the fanned vegetables are a beauty to behold.



The Recipe
Remy's Ratatouille (aka Confit Byaldi)
adapted from The New York Times, courtesy of Thomas Keller
Yield: 8 side servings

Piperade Ingredients:

  • 1/2 yellow bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed
  • 1/2 orange bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed
  • 3 Roma (plum) tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup onion, finely diced
  • 1 tsp minced garlic
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 sprig thyme
  • 1 sprig flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 bay leaf

Vegetable Ingredients:

  • 2 Japanese eggplants
  • 2 yellow squash
  • 2 zucchini
  • 4 Roma (plum) tomatoes
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 tbsp olive oil

Vinaigrette Ingredients:

  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp balsamic vinegar
  • chopped fresh herbs (I used parsley and dill)
  • salt and pepper

Preparation:

  • Preheat oven to 450°F.
  • Line a baking sheet with foil. Place bell pepper halves cut-side down on the foil and bake for 15-20 minutes, until skin begins to blister and separate from the pepper flesh. Remove from heat and let cool. Lower the oven to 250°F. Once the peppers are cool, scrape the skin off and discard. Chop the pepper flesh into a fine dice.
  • Meanwhile, bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Cut an X shape into the top of three tomatoes (about 1/4 inch deep). Once the water is boiling, place the three tomatoes in the boiling water, one at a time, for 20 seconds each. Remove carefully and place into a bowl of cold water. Once the tomatoes have cooled, remove the skin with your fingers and discard. Cut the peeled tomatoes in half, squeeze their juices into a bowl, and set juice aside. Chop the tomatoes as fine as possible.
  • While the peppers are roasting and the water for tomatoes is coming to a boil, slice the zucchini and squash using a mandoline (or making the slices ridiculously thin with a knife). Slice the eggplant and the remaining four tomatoes as thin as possible with your chef's knife. About 1/16 inch is ideal. If you have a mandoline that can slice an eggplant and tomatoes, feel free to use it! Mine did not work for them because of the skin. Toss all the slices with 2 tbsp olive oil and some salt and pepper.
  • Heat 2 tbsp olive oil in a non-stick pan over medium heat. Add the onions, garlic, and herbs and cook until soft, about four minutes.
  • Add the bell pepper, tomato, tomato juice, salt, and pepper. Cook over medium-low heat until most of the liquid is gone from the pan, about 6-8 minutes. Remove the herbs.
 
  • Spread the piperade (pepper and tomato mixture) into the bottom of an oven-safe serving pan. You may use a casserole, an 8" stainless steel skillet, or any other dish you have that works for you. Just don't make it too large-- the surface area should be about 50 square inches (in round dishes, A=πr^2 and in rectangular dishes A=l*w).
  • Arrange your sliced vegetables on top of the piperade, alternating vegetables in a pattern (I used eggplant, yellow squash, tomato, then zucchini) and keeping them upright like dominoes. Once you work your way around the edge of the dish, fill in the middle with another round (if there is space) or arrange them like a star. Take a look at my picture, or see this video clip for animated details (don't watch it if you don't want the movie ending given away!)

  • Place foil over the top of your cooking dish and seal by crumpling the foil around the edge. Place in the low-heat oven (250°F) for 1.5-2 hours.
  • Combine vinaigrette ingredients and beat together with a fork until emulsified (oil and vinegar united as one).
  • Remove the foil and place the pan under the broiler until lightly browned.
  • Drizzle with the vinaigrette and serve hot.

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