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Ratatouille!

Submitted by on July 20, 2009 – 1:39 pmNo Comment
One of the many guest appearances Ratatouille made on our honeymoon; here, as a base for seared fish

One of the many guest appearances Ratatouille made on our honeymoon; here, as a base for seared fish

I’m back from my magical trip to Provence, and am delighted to report that the South of France turned out to be a surprisingly GF-friendly place to eat! In fact, it was SO much easier for me to eat out at restaurants there than it is for me here in New York.

Unlike the cuisine that dominates in Paris and in most Parisian-style French bistros in the US, the regional Provencal cuisine is NOT based on the classic French ‘mother sauces’ that contain a butter and flour roux as their thickening agent. Instead, Provencal cuisine employs flour-free vegetable,  fish and/or cream-based sauces such as tomato coulis, anchoïade (anchovy & garlic sauce), and various vegetable cream sauces (mushroom, red peppers…) to accent their vegetable, fish and meat dishes.  Gluten-free vegetable tapenades and terrines (olive, artichoke, red pepper, eggplant…) are also widely served as flavorful accents to a meal,  and you’re as likely to see them served with bread as you are with an omelet or a piece of fish.  After having multiple restauarant owners walk me through their menus item by item to tell me what was safe for me to eat and what wasn’t, I came to conclude that the Provencal cuisine is much more “honest” than is American cuisine; in other words, there tended to only be gluten in foods that one would expect to find gluten in, and I did not encounter any hidden gluten in unexpected places. The only foods that were off limits to me on menus were pastas (obviously) and the toasted croutons served alongside the bouilliabase (obviously).  As a result, I was able to easily gain the requisite weight one would expect to gain on a proper French Honeymoon.  Now back the gym…

The other thing so wonderful and different about eating in Provence in July was the monopoly that locally-grown, in-season vegetables had on the region’s menus.  There was not a head of broccoli or cauliflower in

Another ratatouille sighting, this time as a heaping side dish served at the Vacqueyras Wine Festival

Another ratatouille sighting, this time as a heaping side dish served at a prix fixe meal to hundreds of revelers at the Vacqueyras Wine Festival

sight at any market or in any restauarant. Instead, tomatoes, zucchini, eggplants and artichokes dominated the local markets and the restauarant menus. It struck me that starting around late July through August, we face a similar glut of tomatoes and zucchini here in the northeast; our gardens produce more than we can eat, the farmers’ markets beckon with stacks of inexpensive, sweet heirloom tomatoes that just beg to be bought by the pound… and we collectively fantasize about learning how to can our own veggies at home to capture the fleeting summer bounty and stretch it out beyond its short, natural life.

So what do the French do with their embarassing riches of the world’s most flavorful tomatoes, zucchini and eggplants?

They make Ratatouille.

Ratatouille is a dish that originated in Provence, and it appeared on our plates in some incarnation at outdoor festivals and Michelin-starred restaurants alike.  We had it served to us warm and cold.  We had versions with peppers and without peppers.  We had it offered up as a standalone side dish to fish or chicken and as a filling for omelets and crepes.  Each chef put their own spin on it, and each version we tasted was equally delicious.  It’s hardly a surprise, then, that I chose it as the topic for my first post-vacation blog post.

This recipe for Ratatouille comes from a cookbook I bought while traveling called When Our Grandmothers Cooked in Provence, by Frédérique Féraud-Espérandieu.  (Based on the number accent marks in her name, I decided she must be a huge authority on all things French, so I chose her cookbook above the others.)  Make up a big old batch, freeze some, keep some in the fridge, and serve it for breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner, take it to potluck picnics, eat it hot or cold and don’t feel guilty about buying that enormous bag of tomatoes from the Farmer’s Market next month.

Recipe: Somebody’s French Grandmother’s Ratatouille

Serves 6

Olive oil

4 (small) eggplants (or 2 medium-sized ones), peeled and diced

4 (small-medium) zucchinis, diced

4 green peppers, seeded and cut into strips

2 lbs ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and quartered

2 (large) onions, sliced

3 garlic cloves, crushed

1 bay leaf

1 pinch ground thyme

A few chopped basil leaves (to your own taste)

2 twigs of fresh tarragon

3-4 pinches minced parsley

Salt & pepper

Optional: a handful of pitted green olives (the author recommends “Picholine” variety if you can find them; they’re a firm, immature type of green olive)

Directions:

Heat 3 TBSP olive oil in a large saute pan over medium/high heat.

Saute zucchini until golden.  Season with salt & pepper, remove from heat and drain. Set aside.

Using same pan, repeat the same process for the eggplant until brown.

Repeat the same process for the peppers (you can use less oil here…)

Finally, sweat the onion in 3 TBSP of olive oil, add the tomatoes, garlic, thyme, basil, bay leaf and tarragon.  Cook uncovered and leave this “coulis” to reduce.

Add all of the cooked vegetables back into the with the saucepan with the coulis, add the olives if you wish, stir  until blended, and let simmer on a very low heat for an additional 15 minutes.

Check the seasoning and adjust to taste.

Garnish with the chopped parsley.

Because it would be un-French of me to calculate the precise nutrition info of this dish, suffice it to say that even if you use the total of 12 (!) TBSP of olive oil that the recipe calls for, that makes for 2 TBSP per person, or about 240 calories.  The vegetables are so low calorie that each serving will still only come in at around the 300 calorie range, so enjoy it like the French do: avec pleasure and sans guilt.

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