One of the things I most appreciated about the movie Ratatouille was the way that they addressed the subject of taste. When we think about taste, we think usually of a relative thing: a matter of taste. Salt to taste. That shirt is pretty, but it’s not really my taste. It’s deeply personal, something rooted in us that makes us stop (or continue) adding salt, that makes us pick a certain color sweater, that makes us decorate our houses in a certain way.
But when it comes to taste of food, I think Ratatouille tapped into something deeper: the emotional link that comes with taste. There are certain flavors, certain dishes, that send me careening back to a certain point in my life: peanut butter balls and forgotten cookies are strictly Christmas, and they put me back in my mom’s kitchen, with bright, glinting foil-covered cookie sheets for those glossy forgotten cookies. Or the way two forks could clink together as I passed balls of peanut butter back and forth between them, shaking as much chocolate off as I could before transferring to a cookie sheet for refrigeration.
Lavender puts me back to Cafe Alsace, the best French restaurant I’ve ever been to, located in Decatur, Georgia. Their lavender vanilla ice cream is irreplaceable in my taste catalog, and there’s no substitution.
Food has this power over us, the way smell does too: it can grab us by the tongue and take us to a place we didn’t expect. When we eat something great, and that greatness is relative (a matter of taste, we could say), we are powerless before it. We are sentient beings, and our senses rule over us, taking hold of our palates and our hearts.
I often think of the Campbell’s soup commercial where the mom feeds soup to the snowman who comes through her door, and as the snowman eats, the snow melts away to reveal a little boy underneath all that chill. That’s how taste works, I think. It melts away the exterior, and it puts you smack in the middle of a sense memory.
If you’ve seen the movie, you know the moment when Anton Ego, the feared food critic, tastes the magical ratatouille. He is suddenly no longer hardened, but rather, he’s a little boy who has had a bad day whose mom makes him something warm and comforting to eat. The pen falls from his hand. He’s no longer a critic. He’s an eater.
In my CSA this week, I got a ton of eggplant (you’ll remember, we picked up our neighbor’s box as well, so we’ve got eggplant for days). What better time, then, to try making ratatouille?
There are many recipes, but I like this one from smitten kitchen. Hers is from the movie (her recreation, at least), and it’s so, so pretty. Rather easy to make, too. Use a mandoline (or your savvy knife skills) to cut the slices of vegetables extra thin. I had a hard time cutting the eggplant with the mandoline, but everything else was relatively easy.
Recipe from smitten kitchen
1/2 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, very thinly sliced
1 cup tomato puree (such as Pomi)
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 small eggplant (my store sells these “Italian Eggplant” that are less than half the size of regular ones; it worked perfectly)
1 smallish zucchini
1 smallish yellow squash
1 longish red bell pepper
Few sprigs fresh thyme
Salt and pepper
Few tablespoons soft goat cheese, for serving
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
Pour tomato puree into bottom of an oval baking dish, approximately 10 inches across the long way. Drop the sliced garlic cloves and chopped onion into the sauce, stir in one tablespoon of the olive oil and season the sauce generously with salt and pepper.
Trim the ends off the eggplant, zucchini and yellow squash. As carefully as you can, trim the ends off the red pepper and remove the core, leaving the edges intact, like a tube.
On a mandoline, adjustable-blade slicer or with a very sharp knife, cut the eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash and red pepper into very thin slices, approximately 1/16-inch thick.
Atop the tomato sauce, arrange slices of prepared vegetables concentrically from the outer edge to the inside of the baking dish, overlapping so just a smidgen of each flat surface is visible, alternating vegetables. You may have a handful leftover that do not fit.
Drizzle the remaining tablespoon olive oil over the vegetables and season them generously with salt and pepper. Remove the leaves from the thyme sprigs with your fingertips, running them down the stem. Sprinkle the fresh thyme over the dish.
Cover dish with a piece of parchment paper cut to fit inside. (Tricky, I know, but the hardest thing about this.)
Bake for approximately 45 to 55 minutes, until vegetables have released their liquid and are clearly cooked, but with some structure left so they are not totally limp. They should not be brown at the edges, and you should see that the tomato sauce is bubbling up around them.
Serve with a dab of soft goat cheese on top, alone, or with some crusty French bread, atop polenta, couscous, or your choice of grain.
I served this over quinoa, and I used smitten kitchen’s recommendation to serve with a bit of goat cheese on top. And I’m so glad I did because that cheese makes the flavors sing. Also, I had crusty French bread on the side.
For an extra special treat, eat the leftovers as a sandwich the next day. It’s like a meatless meatball sub. Toast up the French bread as you heat up the ratatouille. Cut open the French bread, spoon the ratatouille on, add as much goat cheese as you’d like, and then close your sandwich and enjoy!