A French Provençal stewed vegetable dish, originating in Nice, and sometimes called ratatouille niçoise. It is often referred to as a peasant’s dish.
With painstaking attention to detail, I spooned thinly sliced, stewed vegetables onto a spiral of pasta and sprinkled freshly picked basil and parmesan cheese over the top. The kitchen was covered in pots, pans, mixing bowls, cutting boards, spoons, sauce and vegetable scraps but nothing distracted me from my work. The tempting garlicky aroma wafting around the room confirmed that I was headed in the right direction. At last, with as much pride and dignity as Michael Angelo after painting his Sistine Chapel, I, with flushed cheeks, messy hair, wearing a red polka dotted apron, and covered head to toe in ingredients, marched my masterpiece over to the dining room table where my family patiently sat waiting to eat it. Eyes wide and darting back and forth nervously, I waited as my family took their first bites, hoping they would love it as much as I did. My ten-year-old hopes were not disappointed since many encouraging praises ensued, along with their spoken desire that it would become a treasured summer family tradition.
Many kids watched the Pixar animation film “Ratatouille” and thought it was just a cute cartoon about a rat who loved to cook. I, on the other hand, was mesmerized by the description of food, flavors, and smells and became determined to recreate the delectable and enticing French dish.
My mom, in her thoughtful, wise way realized a lot could be learned from my quest to make ratatouille. She decided we would plant a garden and proceeded to purchase tomato plants, peppers, zucchini, squash, and basil seeds. She patiently dug the soil, as I pretended to help with my tiny spade, and taught me to carefully place the plants in their new homes. Daily, she filled up her large watering can and walked to the garden as I skipped alongside her with my small can spilling most of the contents. The months that followed taught me many things like the importance of hard work and patience. Although, I wanted that dish terribly, the tomatoes just couldn’t be coaxed into ripening more quickly, the zucchini refused to grow faster and the basil just wouldn’t blossom.
One forlorn day, looking out my window, I delightedly realized that winter’s chill was gone, spring had passed, and that the warmth of summer had at last yielded tomatoes gloriously ready for ratatouille. Carrying a basket and shears, I eagerly rushed to the garden and picked vine fresh tomatoes and collected zucchini, yellow squash and fresh herbs before dancing back to the kitchen to make my masterpiece. When all was said and done that magical first bite made the long preparatory months, worth it all.
Perhaps making ratatouille wasn’t that extraordinary, but for me, it was the beginning of my artistic journey. That process imparted lessons that helped mold me into the artistic person I am today. First, to be an artist means you set out with determination and pluck to conquer your dreams and don’t let anything stand in the way of achieving them. To be an artist is to be willing to dig through the hard soil that tests your mettle in order to plant seeds of hope. It means watering those seeds every day sometimes even with your tears. It means not giving up because that plant didn’t yield perfect fruit the first time or plucking it before it’s ripe. Being an artist is being willing to share your hard work with others and finding satisfaction in the beginning, middle, and the end of the journey. The art of making a humble peasant stew can teach one much, if only the artist is willing to listen.
Oven Ratatoiulle : A more simple version for those of us who still want to re-live their childhoods but have little time. 🙂
- 2 large eggplants
- Kosher salt
- About 1/2 cup olive oil, for cooking
- 2 small zucchini , cut into thick rounds
- 2 yellow squash, cut into rounds
- 2 Red or yellow bell peppers sliced
- 1 onion, sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 5 medium tomatoes roughly chopped
- Chili flakes
- Handful or 2 chopped fresh basil leaves
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Thickly slice the eggplant, and place in a colendar which you’ve placed in the sink. Salt, very generously, and leave 30 minutes for the excess water to drain off. When they are ready, rinse them well under the tap and pat them dry with a towel. While the eggplant drains, put some oil on a baking sheet and toss the zucchini and yellow squash slices in it, then sprinkle salt and pepper over top. “Grill” in the oven, turning once. After ten minutes add the sliced peppers to the sheet as well, and continue cooking for another ten minutes. Take care not to let the vegetables brown too much. After they are done place in a bowl.
Finally, cut the rinsed and dried eggplant into chunks, toss in oil, and spread on the baking sheet, and “grill” also, for about 15 minutes. While vegetables are in the oven, heat a spoonful of olive oil in a saute pan, and sauté the onions until soft. Add the garlic, and oregano and saute 1 minute. Add the tomatoes. Cook the tomatoes until they are very soft and the whole mixture is thick and soupy, about 15 minutes. Combine grilled vegetables and sauce in the pan or in a large bowl and season to taste with salt and pepper, and sprinkle generously with basil.