For Mother’s Day this year, I decided that brunch just wouldn’t cut it. No: This year, my mama deserved something extra-special. Since last August, she hasn’t just been wearing her Mom hat, but also a very large, intricate, wedding planner hat. Imagine a traditional British fascinator. To help me plan my wedding, she researched everything from dresses to peony season to venues that hold a small Jewish army in upstate New York (turns out, not many).
I quickly landed on a Parisian inspired dinner party. Is Melanie French? No, not technically, but she does believe that she was French in a past life. She loves baguettes and berets and Bordeaux and Chanel a bit more than your average lady. When planning the menu, I wanted to keep things delicious and easy. According to David Lebovitz, Parisians don’t waste time on trying to impress people; they just keep things simple.
The first entrée I made was a creamy and tangy chicken a la moutarde. For my second main, I chose ratatouille, because we had one vegan in attendance. Ratatouille also happens to be gluten-free, so keep this one in your back pocket when entertaining a crowd with diverse eating habits. Allergen-friendliness aside, ratatouille feels rustic, and reminds me of a wonderful summer I spent studying French in the Côte d'Azur when I was 17 (going on 27), sipping cheap rosé and eating cheese by the pound. In pleasing mom, I thought this dish might also bring me down the lazy river of nostalgia for a minute or two.
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While ratatouille doesn’t really need a recipe, I wanted to use one, since I’d be feeding a lot of guests. I consulted Genius Recipes and landed on Alice Waters' Ratatouille. I followed the steps exactly, sauteing eggplant alone, intricately wrapping herbs in butcher’s twine, letting everyone relax in the pan together for a few minutes. When my work was done, I tasted and let the flavors linger on my tongue. I tasted again. Delicious, bien sûr, but something was missing for me. I added a bit of salt, and tried the ratatouille again. Had I done something wrong? After all, this was a recipe by the food legend Alice Waters. Certainly, her work needs no edits.
Perhaps my taste buds were lingering in Japan, from a recent trip I took there, still craving the sodium of pork in tonkatsu ramen, the sushi consistently dipped and dunked into soy or ponzu or other dark, wheaty sauces. I peered into my fridge. What could I add to the ratatouille that would not mask it’s subtle, bright flavors, but instead, hide in the background, rooting for the Alice Waters recipe but not overshadowing it?
Ketchup? Too sweet. Sriracha? Too spicy. Mustard? Nope. Tamarind Chutney? Nah. How did that even end up here? I think I bought this chutney when I went to explore Kalustyan’s, an expansive South Asian grocery shop. I had used it only once before, when I wanted to amp up the flavor of fried eggplant slices. Now that my memory was jogged, I recalled how pungent, sour, and simply marvelous it made the creamy vegetable taste. Since Ratatouille is also based on eggplant, I decided to give it a try.
A tangent: If you’ve never tried it, tamarind chutney is traditional in many South Asian recipes. On its own, tamarind is a pod-shaped tropical fruit that is technically classified as a legume. It’s flavor is a harmony of sweet and sour, like nature’s interpretation of Sour Patch Kids. To make tamarind chutney, you dilute tamarind paste with water, and spices such as cumin, ginger, and black pepper. You cook the whole mixture together until it becomes thick and syrupy. Once it’s ready, it can be used the way any sauce would.
I added a few spoonfuls to my pot of still-warm-ratatouille and then I tasted: exactly what I was hoping for. The tamarind chutney acted in my ratatouille the way that nutmeg does in a traditional béchamel sauce, becoming the masked flavor you can’t exactly pinpoint. It brought out many characteristics that I didn’t catch in the individual vegetables earlier: the caramelization of the eggplant, the freshness of the zucchini, the woodsy scent of the thyme. By taking a risk, I was able to turn a very classic dish into something of my own. The ratatouille with tamarind chutney was a smashing success at dinner, and everyone requested seconds. We scraped our bowls with baguettes as trusty assistants, finished the last drops of Bordeaux. Most importantly, my mother was tres content.
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