ratatouille

Ratatouille By Any Other Name...

When you talk about a Mediterranean diet, it’s hard to imagine that 20-plus countries bordering one sea could have anything identifiable as a single diet. Yet because of history and climate and customs, dishes that are really variations on a theme do show up quite often. The Provençal stew of eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, garlic, onions and olive oil is a good example.
 
 
Ratatouille has cousins all over the Mediterranean, each with its own distinctive personality and special taste. The core ingredients—eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, zucchini—are not even native to the Mediterranean (although the essential olive oil certainly is). They came to the region long ago by different routes. Eggplant was introduced throughout the Mediterranean basin by Arabs who brought it from its native India in the Middle Ages. Bell peppers, zucchini and tomatoes came from the New World, introduced to Europe by Christopher Columbus and his pals. (Strangely enough, all but the zucchini are members of the nightshade family. As in deadly nightshade. Which apparently is why Europeans were originally suspicious of the tomato, although the Mediterranean countries certainly came around, adopting it with passion and creativity as a quintessential Med ingredient.)
 
 
So about all those cousins…this is what I’ve come across so far. (Additions and corrections welcome! Add a comment below.)
 
Catalan samfaina, or xamfaina, is virtually identical to ratatouille. Colman Andrews speculates in his book Catalan Cuisine that perhaps, in fact, samfaina came first “considering the early popularity of eggplant [among] Catalans and the fact that [they] were using tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini widely before their French neighbors were.” It also sometimes takes the form of a sauce, when it’s cooked longer into an almost jammy consistency.
 
Then there’s the caponata side of the family:
 
Sicilian caponata adds celery to the basic four, plus sweetened vinegar and capers for a sweet-and-sour dish.
 
Maltese kapunata eliminates the zucchini and adds capers.
 
Moroccan kamfounata is spiced with cumin and fresh coriander (cilantro).
 
Tunisians call their stew of peppers and tomatoes shakhshÅ«kha—to which they add eggs and cayenne, and maybe chickpeas. Tunisian Jews probably brought the dish to Israel, where it is very popular. (Try it right here in NYC at Hummus Place, where it includes eggplant and onions.) In fact, it’s become a common dish throughout North Africa, where it’s sometimes served with spicy Merguez sausage. 
 
Turks love their eggplant any way they can get it. Imam bayildi (“the priest swooned”) leaves behind ratatouille’s zucchini and pepper and gives center stage to braised eggplant, which is stuffed with onion, garlic and tomatoes. Karniyak keeps the eggplant, pepper, tomatoes trio and adds minced meat and rice.
 
Musakka was originally an Ottoman dish, but is widely known today in its Greek incarnation moussaka: stewed eggplant and tomatoes with meat, topped with a béchamel sauce. Various Turkish versions have zucchini or green peppers or chickpeas or no béchamel.
 
Then there’s the don’t-forget-that-other-nightshade-veggie crowd. We’re talking potatoes.
 
Mallorcan tumbet, or tombet, is made from eggplants, peppers, tomatoes—and potatoes—although sometimes zucchini pops in there, too.
 
Greek briami is a casserole of zucchini, potatoes, onions and tomatoes (sometimes peppers, too). It makes a great dish for Meatless Monday, as do many of these. I haven’t tried this briami recipe yet myself but the test kitchen of one hungry student named Stefan in Montreal vouches for it as a tasty and satisfying meal (good enough to eat two nights in a row).
 
 
And then, of course, there’s the fabulously high-style ratatouille of movie fame, actually a dish called confit byaldi, invented by chef Michel Guerard (of cuisine minceur fame) and created for the movie—with the vegetables fanned out accordion style—by French Laundry (Yountville, CA) chef Thomas Keller, who worked as a culinary consultant for the film. 
 
Here’s a simpler but equally stylish rendition of that dish from Smitten Kitchen.
 
The creativity just goes on and on. What’s your riff on ratatouille? Or your family’s tradition?  Write to us!

RECIPE: Briami, or Greek Vegetable Casserole

BRIAMI IS ONE OF MANY ratatouille-like dishes found around the Mediterranean, each with its own distinctive taste and slight variations of ingredients. Served with a green salad, this makes a great main dish. Meatless Monday anyone?
 
Serves 3-4 as a main dish, 4-6 as a side
 
1 large red pepper, roughly chopped
¼ cup olive oil
2 onions, sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 medium zucchini (about ¾ lb), thickly sliced
¾ lb small potatoes, unpeeled, cut into ½ inch slices
2 lbs ripe tomatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
(when tomatoes are out of season, use drained, canned Italian tomatoes—Marzano if possible)
1 tsp dried oregano
2 tbs chopped fresh flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
2 tbs chopped fresh dill
½ tsp ground cinnamon
 
Preheat oven to 350°F.
 
Place peppers, zucchini, potatoes, tomatoes, herbs and cinnamon in a bowl and season generously with salt and pepper.
 
Heat 2 tbs of the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until soft but not browned, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and cook until aromatic, about 2 minutes. Add the onion mixture to the other vegetables in the bowl and toss together. Transfer to a large baking dish and drizzle with remaining olive oil.
 
Cover and bake 1 to 1½ hours, stirring every 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.
 
Eat as a main dish, with a salad, or as a side dish with chicken or fish. It can be served hot or at room temperature.
 
Adapted from The Essential Mediterranean Cookbook (Bay Books, an imprint of Murdoch Books). 

Another Salvo in the Ratatouille Skirmishes

Salon is reigniting the Great Ratatouille Debate. Is it a simple “what-the-hell-are-we-going-to-do-with-all-this-stuff kind of [stew],” as writer Francis Lam puts it (and was at first inclined toward), or is there much more to it? As readers of this blog know by now, Mediterraneanista tends to lean toward the lazy, er, easy approach to cooking.

But there’s nothing like a good writer (Lam was a contributing editor at Gourmet) to spark a little open-mindedness. As he recounts the story of spending four hours (!) in the kitchen to create a ratatouille that is “the BOMB,” I find myself getting curious and beginning to think maybe, one day, I’ll have to try the more complicated recipe. I mean, who can resist tasting a “weapons grade ratatouille—with flavor so deep it’ll drop your voice an octave”? At least once. Stay posted.
Syndicate content