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Every week, Food52's Senior Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius. Today, with the help of Alice Waters, we're bringing ratatouille back to life, without all the fuss.
It is a rare dish that inspires so much indignation -- so much ranting about tradition and propriety -- as ratatouille, that seemingly unassuming melange of late summer produce from the Provençal countryside.
And yet here I am, climbing out on a limb to tell you that Alice Waters makes a very, very good ratatouille -- maybe the best. Don't throw an eggplant at me just yet. Let me explain.
In the schools of ratatouille, at one end you'll find the disciples of the Julia Child method: Every vegetable must be cooked separately before they "partake of a brief communal simmer." The eggplants are cut into slim rectangles; the tomatoes are peeled, juiced and slivered; the bell peppers must be green. Then all are layered into a casserole and basted heroically. Make this one when you want to feel reverent and perfect.
Julia Child took these pains to ensure that every vegetable maintained its dignity, without melting into a muddy soup. But leave it to Alice Waters, longtime champion of vegetable TLC (Chez Panisse turns 40 this week), to show us such rigor isn't necessary. Somewhere between Julia Child's perfectionism and just giving up and dumping everything in the pot at once, there is a happy compromise.
Waters' recipe only fusses where it needs to fuss -- over the eggplant, which does benefit from a brief time-out under a dousing of salt to draw out its moisture and bitterness. After a pat dry and browning session all its own, the eggplant behaves itself, turning sweet and bronzed with creamy flesh.
For the rest, Waters simply adds the vegetables to the pot one by one to build flavor, but because they're cut small (1/2 inch), they don't cook long and don't have a chance to inherit each other's idiosyncrasies.
A few smart, modern details pull this recipe further into the realm of genius: basil is delivered in two stages, via a bouquet that swishes along in the pot the whole time, and a smattering of fresh chopped leaves at the end. A pinch of red chile flakes sharpens the focus, and a finishing swirl of fresh olive oil pulls the sauce together. (The slideshow below shows how it all goes down.)
What you end up with is a humble stew, yes, but one that has every bit of integrity the summer harvest deserves. One that you can eat hot with fried eggs or spoon up cold onto torn hunks of bread. And one that you may now start boasting is the best way to make ratatouille -- because we can't always be Julia Child.
Alice Waters' Ratatouille
Adapted slightly from The Art of Simple Food.
Serves 6 to 8. Note: All vegetables conveniently work out to about a pound in weight.
1 medium or 2 small eggplant, cut into 1/2-inch dice
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided, plus more to taste
2 medium onions, cut into 1/2-inch dice
4 to 6 garlic cloves, chopped
1/2 bunch of basil, tied in a bouquet with kitchen twine + 6 basil leaves, chopped
Pinch dried chile flakes
2 sweet peppers, cut into 1/2-inch dice
3 medium summer squash, cut into 1/2-inch dice
3 medium ripe tomatoes, cut into 1/2-inch dice
Salt to taste
Want more genius recipes? Try Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter or Ian Knauer's Sticky Balsamic Ribs.
Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at email@example.com.
Photos by James Ransom