by John Ryan
An Appreciation of Ratatouille
I remember being hooked on a short television show some twenty or twenty-five years ago. I'm talking short, maybe 5 minutes long. But it was a show I never missed. It aired after a PBS program, something like Biography or Masterpiece Theater. Sometimes I watched this show. Sometimes I didn't. But I always caught Floyd on Furniture that filled out the hour.
Sometimes that's the way it is, what you look forward to is not the main event, but a tasty little bit on the side.
What's amazing to me now is how simple this show was. No razzle-dazzle lighting, no pretty girls, so sis-boom-bah music. All it was was a guy, Floyd, in a room with a piece of furniture. What made the show so engaging was that Floyd didn't just talk about the piece, he caressed the wood grain, idolized the craftsmanship, gushed over the details. For me, Pre-Floyd, a chest of drawers was a place to keep t-shirts and underwear. (Keep in mind that I was 12, maybe 14 years old at the time and I thought the thing was called a Chester Drawers.) Under Floyd's enthusiastic guidance, I glimpsed the clever ways drawers could be put together without tacks, nails or screws. I came to appreciate the way wood grains can flow and how the placement of a knot could be pure art. In those five minutes furniture was the most important thing in the world because in those five minutes I not only understood his obsession, I shared it.
Even though I don't like the word "criticism," Floyd set the bar because his "criticism" was filled with Appreciation. To this day I look for movie critics who love the genre of movie they are writing about. I don't care if it's a Kung Fu movie or Merchant/Ivory production. I want a critic who is also an appreciator of the genre.
(One of the reasons I don't care for Antique Roadshow is that the appraisals are so cold, so commercial. The expert sums up the history of a piece and names a figure with all the enthusiasm of a pawn broker. I'm sure this appeals to many, but it leaves me cold because it's more about cashing-in than appreciating.)
And if ever there was something that could be appreciated, it's food.
With late summer on us, I've been thinking again about ratatouille. Ratatouille is one of those classic dishes I can't stay away from. A good ratatouille is a miracle of homogeneous individuality. The way the flavors can blend together and the vegetables can be intact yet meltingly soft is magic. That is one of the important things: that the vegetables keep their form but are soft. Ratatouille is not a hot vegetable smoothy.
Yet as good as the big R is, there is much to enjoy on the way to a great ratatouille.
Take two of R's basic ingredients: zucchini and garlic. They are one of the tasty bits on the way. If you are cooking for two, take a fair size zucchini—a little smaller than a banana. Dice it up—not too big, not too small. Sauté it in a small skillet with just enough olive oil to prevent sticking. As it cooks, stir from time to time and sprinkle with salt and pepper. When the zucchini pieces are browning up nicely and getting soft (you can tell because the zucchini becomes translucent—it's a very cool, frosty lime color like margarita mix), toss in a minced clove of garlic. Stir for another minute or so and serve. It's only the beginning of ratatouille, but already it's a great side dish on its own.
This works deliciously for eggplant and bell peppers as well.
To take any one of those brief sautés one step closer to R, throw a diced tomato into the pan at the end. Let the tomato soften and the juices evaporate a bit. Delicious. (If you're using a fresh tomato, you've got to peel it or the skin slides off and rolls up. This isn't terrible, just a little disconcerting.)
Any of these are tasty side dishes to make on a hot summer evening when you want to keep stove-time to a minimum. But in a short while a chilly evening will hit and the time will be right for a full-blown ratatouille ü the Big R.
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
This page modified September 2001