Lecsó à la française

Newsletter - Aug 2014 RatatoullieOne of my favorite, flavorful, and healthy summer dishes is what some Hungarians call ‘French Lecsós’, or better known as Ratatouille. The Disney movie which came out in 2007 was even titled ‘L’ecsó’ in Hungarian theaters rather than its original. While traditional Hungarian Lecsó is a fantastic blend of flavors, a ragout of onion, peppers, tomato, and ground paprika, when I start seeing those zucchini as big bowling pins and perfectly ripe tomatoes, well, you have to, as they say, ‘make hay while the sun shines’.

Below is my recipe for making Ratatouille on the stove. Making ratatouille is definitely a project for an afternoon. It’s easy, but there is a lot of time needed to get the vegetables washed, chopped, and cooked because this is not a dish that can be rushed, though there are definitely ways to speed the process. You may need to cook in batches so you can brown the vegetables, the maillard reaction, which is the starting phase for breaking down the vegetables cell walls and will definitely add to the final flavor due to its caramelization. Of course you can toss them all into a pot at the same time, but the end result will not really be the same.

Once the vegetables are simmering away on the back burner, you must wait. Of course you can eat your ratatouille as soon as all the vegetables are cooked through, but the real magic happens after it’s been simmering for a few for an hour or more. The vegetables turning silky and tender, melding into the ragout, while the garlic and thyme infuse into the complete dish. Of course there are many other ways to prepare this dish but it should be almost impossible for anyone with rudimentary cooking skills to mess this one up.

Ingredients (serves 4-6)

  • 1 large eggplant (padlizsán)
  • 2 medium onions
  • 2 red peppers
  • 2-3 medium zucchini (cukkini)
  • 4 large tomatoes
  • 1 1/2 – 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3-4 cloves garlic
  • 1 bay leaf (babérlevél)
  • 3-4 sprigs thyme (kakukkfű)
  • Salt and pepper
  • balsamic vinegar
  • 500ml of water, dry red wine, or chicken stock

Instructions

  • Cube eggplant into bite-sized pieces (1.5cm) and put them into a strainer. Sprinkle with ½ spoonful of salt and let sit.
  • Dice the onions, remove seeds and roughly chop the peppers, and cube zucchini into similar bite-sized pieces as the eggplant. Mince the garlic. Keep each one in a separate bowl as they will be added at different times.
  • With a knife make an X, not too deep – just enough to cut through the skin, on the bottom of each tomato, then place in a heatproof bowl. Pour boiling water over the tomatoes, leave for 20-30 secs, then remove and cover with cold water. After cooling peel the skin away. Quarter the tomatoes, scrape away the seeds, and then roughly chop the remaining flesh. (This step may be skipped if skins and seeds don’t bother you but they can be bitter and add little to the dish)
  • In a very large skillet, it should be large enough to hold all the ingredients, or dutch oven set to medium high heat, add a good glug of olive oil, and saute onions along with a generous dash of salt. When they’ve begin to turn golden, about 10 min, add the red pepper and cook until they soften, about 5 minutes more. Remove to a clean bowl.
  • Deglazing – while cooking there may be a brown glaze, or specks of brown, build up on the bottom of the pan. If so, splash just enough of your liquid on hand (chicken stock, wine, or water) to deglaze the pan, stirring with whatever veggies you’re cooking at the time.  If it appears black lower the heat a bit as to not burn. Repeat this step when necessary during cooking process.
  • Add another splash of oil and sauté the zucchini with a generous pinch of salt until the zucchini has softened and is beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Transfer the zucchini to the bowl with the onions and peppers.
  • Rinse the eggplant under running water to remove excess salt and squeeze gently to ring our moisture. Add to skillet with 2 more spoonfuls of oil and cook until they have softened and begun to turn translucent, about 10 minutes. Add to vegetable bowl.
  • Add 1 spoonful of oil in pan and saute minced garlic until golden, about a minute. Add chopped tomatoes, bay leaf and 2 sprigs of thyme. When mixture starts to bubble, if necessary, add some liquid to deglaze then add all the vegetables back into the pan. Stir to incorporate.
  • Bring stew to a simmer and then lower heat to low. Stirring occasionally, simmer for at least 30 minutes or up to 1 1/2 hours. The longer it cooks, the silkier it will taste as the vegetables blend together.
  • Splash with balsamic and stir
  • About 10 minutes before you give up waiting for the dish to be finished, sprinkle in remaining thyme removed from the stem. Remove cooked  thyme stems and bay leaf.

Serve over pasta, rice, polenta, or couscous.

Ratatouille will taste great served hot or room temperature and will absolutely taste better the next day if it lasts that long.

Tips

If you want to hurry up the process but still get similar taste results you could cook the whole thing in a pressure cooker, thereby reducing the 1 ½ hour cooking process to about 15 min. Follow all the individual cooking steps as instructed, just do it your pressure cooker instead…of course not under pressure just as a large pot. When you have incorporated all your vegetables check to make sure you have enough liquid in the pot, you will probably need to add 100-200ml of your remaining liquid; you want it thick and wet, not soupy. Put on your lid and bring to high pressure then reduce heat to point where pressure is still maintained. Cook for 13-15 mins, remove from heat, allow pressure to naturally release. When pressure has dissipated, open and check consistency. If it’s too loose, simmer to reduce. This cooking method works just a great as the slow cook method.

  • The world’s largest zucchini on record was 69 1/2 inches (176 cm) long, and weighed 65 lbs (29.5 kg)
  • Zucchini has more potassium than a banana
  • The Flying Zucchini Brothers is an Italian acrobat/daredevil act and are best known for their Human Cannon Ball act.
  • 100 g of Ratatouille is only 44 calories, 4% of your daily fat, and 55% of your vitamin C RDA (this may vary by how well you follow the recipe)
  • The word Ratatouille actually comes from the french term “touiller,” which means to toss food.
  • Ratatouille originated in the area around present day Nice, which is a sister city of Szeged. It was originally a peasant meal made by poor farmers, and was prepared in the summer with fresh summer vegetables.