That is what I said to my stepmom the first time she ever served
ratatouille at our
house in Berkeley. I was (am) fond of tormenting her
over anything she cooked, even when I liked it, but that time I was
genuinely stumped; I had never heard of the stuff before.
I imagine that many people were similarly stumped when they first heard
of Pixar’s latest creation. With an uber-famous team of writer’s and an
academy-award-winning director, the folks at Pixar no doubt knew they
would create a stir when they announced their Disney-owned project. I
just wonder if they thought the stir would involve both non-gourmet and
gourmet parents all over America saying things like “I think it’s a
type of pasta. Or eggplant. From Russia.”
Their kids no doubt corrected them and told them it is the name of the
movie I want to go see right now! But for those of us who grew up
eating it, what it is, of course, is a vegetable mélange with origins
in France, a dish close to my own heart because it goes with anything
and tastes better the next day.
But since the name is now primarily associated with a movie about Remy
the Parisian rat chef, and since the kitchen he cooks in is modeled
after that of Thomas Keller, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to
review both movie and dish, together.
First of all, at my local theatre the movie opened with a short from
(academy-award winning) director Gary Rydstrom called Lifted. This
mini-movie was packed with plot, emotion, and humor, all without using
words. It also contained an incredible animation scene that looked like
one of those pin-things that you had when you were a kid, one of those
boxes that you would press your hand or face into to make an
impression? See the movie and you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Pixar continues to astound with their photo-real computer animation,
and the food sequences were no exception – fruits and vegetables and
particularly bread were all real enough to make us drool. Most
impressive to me and my husband were the streets and buildings of
Paris, which looked unbelievably real, and the water in the sewers – I
know they perfected the whole water thing with Nemo, but man, they are
good. Linguine and Remy are an amusing and original team, and both have
interesting story arcs that they follow on their own as well as with
My principal complaints about the movie were two. One was with the
cooking itself – a lot of lip service is being paid to how this is a
true foodie movie, but cooking always became a point of humor and
physical comedy. While amusing and fun to watch the only ‘real’ cooking
was going on in the background, if at all.
Second, I took major issue (though my husband didn’t notice) that in an
entire clan of hundreds of rats there was not one woman. Not one. Remy
had no mother, no sister, no girlfriend, no neighbor girl whom he
played you-show-me-yours with growing up. It was a strange, in fact,
that through the whole movie there were only three female characters;
the caricature of an old woman who opened the show with her musket, the
incredibly sexy motorcycle riding chef Linguine falls in love with,
and Linguine’s deceased mother, present only through her feminine
lavender-colored note-paper. They make a big deal about the fact that
cooking is a man’s world, that women have to really struggle to be
chefs, but instead of debunking the myth they present and showing kids
across America that little rat girls can cook just as well as little
rat boys, they have one woman in the kitchen making bad,
stick-to-the-recipe-or-die decisions, and no other women in the film at
I do think it is wonderful that cooking and food are being brought to
masses of children through an action-packed and well-imagined story
that brings great characters to life. To my mind, they could have
concentrated even more on the food itself (the only things Remy ever
seems to eat are cheese and fruit, which is rather rat-like for someone
who prides himself on being un-ratty) and given us an even stronger
cast by adding a few more female characters in notable roles. If I were
a thumb-rater, mine would be up – as it is, I’ll give the movie 4 stars
when it comes out on Netflix.
In closing, I’ll offer three versions of ratatouille for you to try on
your own; Thomas Keller’s, made famous as the starring dish in the
movie; my own, not famous at all; and a grilled ratatouille that seems
wonderfully appropriate for these long summer months of blockbusters
and barbecues. Enjoy! Hannah Heller
(a.k.a. Keller’s Ratatouille)
Unlike traditional ratatouilles, this recipe calls for layering
vegetables in a spiral. You could also layer the vegetables in stripes;
I don’t think it would change the flavor and it seems like it would be
This makes four servings and takes 3-4 hours, about 1 hour of it active work depending on your vegetable-spiraling skills.
For the bottom layer:
1/2 red bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed
1/2 yellow bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed
1/2 orange bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 cup finely diced yellow onion
3 tomatoes (about 12 ounces total weight), peeled, seeded and finely diced, juices reserved
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 sprig flat-leaf parsley
1/2 a bay leaf
For the spiraling layers of vegetables:
1 medium zucchini (4 to 5 ounces) sliced in 1/16-inch-thick rounds
1 Japanese eggplant (4 to 5 ounces) sliced into 1/16-inch-thick rounds
1 yellow (summer) squash (4 to 5 ounces) sliced into 1/16-inch-thick rounds
4 Roma tomatoes, sliced into 1/16-inch-thick rounds (keep the seedy pulp intact)
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/8 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the vinaigrette:
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
Assorted fresh herbs (such as thyme flowers, chervil, thyme)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. To make the base layer of the thing (what the pros call the
piperade, the bottom layer that the rest is set onto) preheat oven to
2. Line a baking sheet with foil. Place pepper halves on the
baking sheet, cut side down. Roast until the skins loosen, (maybe 15
minutes if you have rockin’ roast skills). Remove the peppers from the
oven and let rest until cool enough to handle (meaning, don’t remove
with your bare hands. Tried that, not so awesome). Also, once those
peppers are done, remember to reduce the oven temperature to 275
3. Once they’ve cooled to handle-able temperatures (or once you’ve
decided your hands are already burnt so what the heck), peel the
peppers and discard the skins (or eat them as a snack with a little
kosher salt, mmmmm).
4. Finely chop the pepper-insides, then set aside.
Put your favorite medium skillet over low heat, and toss in the oil,
garlic and onion. Saute until very soft and squishy but not browned,
about 8 minutes. (You can add another couple drops of oil if the
goodness in the pan seems in risk of browning)
5. Add the tomatoes, their juices, thyme, parsley and bay leaf.
Bring to a simmer over low heat and cook until they too are very soft
(yeah, the whole recipe is sort of impotent – probably because it’s so
complicated). Only a tiny little bit of liquid remains when you are
done, after about 10 minutes. Do not brown these guys either. This
stuff should be racist and impotent, like all good ratatouille. (Jokes,
6. Add the peppers and simmer to soften them. Discard the herbs, then
season to taste with salt. (If you’re married to my husband, this
involves draining the Great Salt Lake and hauling the residue in with a
bulldozer). Reserve a tablespoon or two of the mixture, then spread the
remainder over the bottom of an 8-inch oven-proof skillet.
7. To prepare the vegetables, you will arrange the sliced zucchini,
eggplant, squash and tomatoes over the bottom layer in the skillet. I’m
providing directions for a Keller-like spiral, but feel free to layer
in lines if you’d rather.
8. To spiral out of control: Arrange 8 alternating pieces of your
assorted round vegetable slices down the center, overlapping them so
that 1/4 inch of each slice is exposed. (For those who understand
vegetable geometry and want to take it from here, this will be the
center of the spiral).
9. Next, around that center strip, overlap more vegetables in a close
spiral that lets slices mound slightly toward center. (Your outside
edges will probably be slightly loser once you are done spiraling all
those veggies around). I didn’t need all the veggies I cut; you can set
them aside, to sauté up in some salt and olive oil as a snack. You will
want a snack since your ratatouille will take at least two hours and
probably more like 3 to bake.
10. For the sauce, mix the garlic, oil and thyme, then season with
salt and pepper to taste. Pour this evenly over the spiraling
vegetables – well, sprinkle it. There is not as much as you would
11. Cover the skillet with foil and pinch the edges to seal well. Bake
until the vegetables are tender, about 2 hours (remember, your oven
should be at 275). Once they are tender, uncover and bake for another
30 minutes. (Make a lose foil tent over it if it starts to brown – NO
brown ratatouille, please!)
The official recipe says that if there is excess liquid remaining in
pan, you should place it over medium heat on stove until reduced. I
think the excess liquid is okay as long as it is not soggy – you will
be starving because your dinner took 4 hours to make and you will just
want to tear into it, not spend more time messing with it – plus you
still have to make the vinaigrette and then FINALLY broil the thing.
But, as we all know, I am not Thomas Keller.
12. To make the vinaigrette, in a small bowl whisk together the
reserved piperade, oil, vinegar, herbs, and salt and pepper to taste.
Or bust out your favorite vinaigrette – we like Amy’s Organic at my
13. To serve that ratatouille up, heat your broiler and place skillet
under it until – get this – it is very lightly browned. He came around
after all – it’s like Arizona with Martin Luther King Day.
14. After browning, slice that ratatouille into four pieces and lift it
(very carefully, ahem) onto plates. You might want to use one of those
offset spatula, what I think of as cheese-cake-servers. Keller
recommends that you then turn the spatula/cheese-cake-server 90 degrees
as you set the ratatouille down, gently fanning the food (into fan
shape, I guess).
15. Drizzle the vinaigrette around plate – decoratively of course, as Remy did in the movie.
16. Serve to your worst critic, and prepare to dazzle.
Source: adapted from Thomas Keller
(ummm, not meant for comparison!)
Serve this cold with a drizzle of Stonehouse lemon olive oil or a
splash of some citrusy vinaigrette, or warm on top of a grilled chicken
breast (yum!). Tastes even better the next day!
Saute until vegetables are golden (I like brown things!) and just tender, about ten minutes on high heat:
¼ cup olive oil
1 medium eggplant, peeled and cut into small (1-inch?) cubes
Several zucchini, cut into similiarly-sized cubes
(you want about the same amount of eggplant and zucchini; vary your
amounts depending on how many are eating, but a pound of each gives you
four solid servings)
Remove the veggies to a plate, and reduce the heat (to say medium-high). Use the same pan to cook up:
1-2 cups of sliced onions in a tablespoon or two of olive oil
The onions will really flavor the dish, so choose your color wisely – I
usually use white, but have also had great success with red and yellow
onions. Once they are soft (8-12 minutes) add:
2 large bell peppers cut into chunks (I like red, but orange or yellow
would also do – don’t use green as the flavor is a little to
sharp/fresh for this dish)
3 cloves garlic, minced and chopped-the-heck-out-of (don’t let the garlic brown)
Once those are cooked up, add salt and pepper to taste, and then dump
in 1-2 cups fresh tomatoes, chopped and with the insides intact, plus
some herbs of your choosing – a couple springs of thyme and a bay leaf
make a good combo. Use fresh if you can.
Reduce the heat to low-ish, and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the
eggplant and zucchini back to the pot, and cook for 10-20 minutes more,
until your veggies are the consistency that you like them. Taste and
adjust the seasonings (often needs more salt), and then stir in some
chopped fresh basil – kicks butt with those tomatoes!
Eat right then out of the pot with your cooking spoon … or serve plated
as a side dish, dumped on top of chicken or rice, or chilled with some
yummy vinaigrette. Delicious!
(for your next sure-to-impress BBQ maneuver)
Your grill should be medium-hot. Charcoal is really good for this, but
gas definitely works too. In a bowl, combine a couple tablespoons olive
oil with a couple tablespoons of your favorite vinegar (red wine
vinegar is a standby ingredient that works great here, FYI).
Into your vinegar and oil, toss the following:
Eggplant slices (half inch thick, one or two slices per person)
2 fennel bulbs, quartered length-wise – if you have one huge one, just
cut it into 8ths and that should be enough unless you love fennel bulb
2 medium zucchini, cut into thick stick-slices
½ head garlic, UNPEELED
One red, one orange, one yellow bell pepper (get the three pack at Trader Joe’s!)
4 plum tomatoes
3 slender leeks, white part only, or 1 white onion cut into chunks.
1.Once they are coated, grill them until the tomatoes and peppers are
charred on the outside and the other veggies are tender. Grilling time
will be different for all the veggies, somewhere between 5 and 20
minutes – watch them carefully!
2. Cool the veggies in a bowl, and then chop everything except the
eggplant slices into rough 1-inch chunks. Put the veggie chunks back
into the bowl and add minced fresh basil, some extra virgin olive oil,
salt, pepper, and any other seasonings you want to try (lemon zest goes
GREAT on this).
3. Arrange the grilled eggplant slices on plates, one or two per
person, and top with the rest of the stuff. Serve at room temperature,
or really at any temperature.
4. Drizzle lightly with vinaigrette for an added flavor burst.