Everyone has seen the movie Ratatouille a few years back and applauded the gorgeous layered vegetable dish the little rodent protagonist concocted to sweep a picky food critic off his feet. I am sure that some of you already know that the dish featured in the cute animated film was actually not a ratatouille, but rather an elegant upscale Confit Byaldi, designed or skillfully interpreted by a renowned American chef Thomas Keller.
The aforementioned dish and the rustic flavorful ratatouille have a lot in common, however — namely vegetable combination and layering. True connoisseurs swear by layering as a way to preserve each vegetable’s individual flavor. What you do afterwards is up to you — you can bake it or you can stew it — either way it will be tasty.
The layering technique is also completely individual — you can throw things into a pot in layers, or you can make this gorgeous mosaic that Thomas Keller showed us in the movie.
I have to admit that the movie inspired me to try the dish, and I layered vegetables sliced paper thin painstakingly, and made the delicate piperade, and cooked it in the oven for hours, and refrigerated overnight. Yes, it was tasty. Very very good. But who in the right mind will spend hours on preparing the side dish/appetizer, unless they are catering some VIP party? There had to be an easier way. So I started reading about it and looking through recipes all over the place.
Imagine my surprise when I suddenly realized that we’ve been cooking this dish as long as I remember, since the time I was a little girl. Moreover, we were cooking this thing in large batches and freezing it for winter time when vitamined goodness was unavailable and fresh vegetables were scarce. Of course! Only we didn’t call it ratatouille, we called it “the Greek sauce”. Don’t know why, probably because of the eggplants.
So the deal with “the Greek sauce” is — find as many varieties of juicy, ripe seasonal vegetables as possible; slice everything uniformly, saute some of the veggies in oil to boost the flavor and rid of extra liquid; layer in a Dutch oven; optionally add some tomato juice; stew for 1 hr. Cool (or not) and serve with sour cream and a slice of white sourdough.
The reason I am posting this is very obvious — many varieties of juicy ripe seasonal vegetables are peaking right now. You are may be one of those people who grows those vegetables in the backyard. So take action. No need to make restaurant dishes, just throw things together and be done. What you’ll get is amazing, naturally spicy, rich, flavorful, thick vegetarian sauce. The sauce is not only a side dish. It will be an excellent lasagna layering sauce. It will freeze well in a ziplock bag and thaw out with zero flavor loss. It’s very refreshing when it’s hot outside. And dare I suggest (oh, I hope my mom isn’t reading this) serving it over pasta?
Like I said, take action now and you’ll experience first hand how a little bit of effort goes a very very long way.
I am giving a proportion, rather than quantity here, since everyone’s batch is different
For each 1 medium eggplant, take
- 2 large carrots
- 1 large yellow onion
- 2 ripe medium tomatoes (Roma is best)
- 2 bell peppers of any color
- 2-3 celery stalks, chopped
- 2 squash or zucchini
- 3-5 sprigs of fresh thyme
- 2-3 garlic cloves, slivered
- 1 bay leaf
- 2-3 allspice corns
- 1 stick of cinnamon (optional)
- salt and pepper to taste
- 2-3 tablespoons of all purpose flour (optional)
- olive oil
- fresh parsley, and if you get a hold of fresh celery leaves they are the best, coarsely chopped
- fresh lemon juice (optional)
Slice all vegetables as uniformly as possible, eggplants should be at least 1/2″ thick.
Keep all the vegetables separate. Sprinkle coarse salt over eggplants and place them on a slanted board to get rid of excess liquid, for about 20 minutes or so.
This step is optional. Heat the cooking oil in a large skillet. Drench eggplant rounds in flour and fry in hot oil until golden, turning once. Lay eggplant rounds out on a paper lined plate. Set aside.
Saute onions in a small amount of oil until golden and translucent, for about 7-8 minutes. Set aside.
In a large pot or Dutch oven, drizzle some olive oil on the bottom and a little on the sides of the pot.
Layer your vegetables: onions, carrots, eggplants, peppers, celery, tomatoes, a bit of fresh herbs, a few slivers of garlic, a few sprigs of thyme. Repeat layering until your vegetables are done. Add salt, freshly ground black pepper, bay leaves, cinnamon and allspice. Drizzle some olive oil on top of the vegetables.
Cover the pot snugly, turn the heat to medium or medium-low. You can now leave the kitchen for at least one hour. Resist the urge to open and mix things. Don’t meddle.
In one hour you can open the pot to check the juice level. You should see a beautifully colored rich red sauce. If you see too much liquid in the pot, you can cook longer, uncovered, to let some of the juice reduce a bit.
Once sauce is ready, turn off the heat. Squeeze fresh lemon juice into the pot and carefully mix the vegetables.
Serve warm or chilled, with a dollop of sour cream and a slice of fresh crusty bread.