vendredi 22 janvier 2010

Films on Food: Ratatouille (or: How to Learn How to Cook)

Seeing Ratatouille is rather like having a good home-cooked meal. It’s heart-warming, a good spin on your old favorites, well-executed, and, in the end, thoroughly satisfying. A quick summary: Remy, a rat, despised by humans and especially despised by restaurant staff, is nevertheless an aspiring chef. He finds his break in Gusteau’s, a previously top-notch restaurant that has fallen in acclaim. Using Linguine, the spineless mop boy, as a puppet, he succeeds in working his culinary genius, eventually winning over Anton Ego, a vulture-like restaurant critic, with a magnificent ratatouille. The film’s mantra is “Anyone can cook”, which Ego is forced to swallow as he realizes some of the finest food he has eaten was made by a rat.

“Anyone can cook.” Or, as the critic Ego finally understands, “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

Now, I believe that anyone can cook. Artistic genius aside, getting to be a competent home-cook—that is, getting good food on the table in an efficient manner, is not so difficult. How does one learn how to cook? In my opinion, it takes four main things:

1. knowledge of food
2. experience
3. an equipped kitchen
4. technique

Knowledge of food. If you don’t like food—meaning, if you don’t pay attention to what you’re eating—you’ll never learn to cook. That’s obvious. What’s not so obvious is how to learn about food. You start by eating—not like a pig, but like a goat: an enormous variety. What foods exist on this earth? Try everything in the supermarket. Go to the foreign foods market. Ask your relatives for recipes. Travel. Then, learn about the individual qualities of the foods you cook with. When are they in season? How are they grown? What part of the world are they from? How is it best to cook them? What other foods do they go well with? This takes time and curiosity.

Experience. Like any skill, cooking takes experience. You aren’t going to cook the potatoes enough the first time. Nor will you wait until the onions are truly caramelized. Nor will you realize why it’s necessary to salt eggplant before you sauté it until you have a bone-dry pan and eggplants fat as sponges. You’ll make mistakes, and learn from them.

Equipment. Tools are necessary. If you are an aspiring pastry chef (like me), many tools (that you don’t have and don’t want to buy because you live in France) are necessary. Tant pis. You can’t really work around these things:

Cutting board and a good knife (a sharp knife should cut through a tomato without denting the skin). Colander. Salad spinner (bulky, I know, but soggy greens don’t cut it). Good non-stick frying pan. Pot and lid. Plastic spatula (metal will scratch your pan). Whisk. Potato peeler. Cheese grater. Kitchen shears. A food processor is really, really useful, but you can work around it (I do). There are loads of other useful things, but not much that you can’t absolutely do without.

Technique. This is the last step, because knowledge and experience are necessary well before you start learning actual cooking techniques. But without technique, everything you cook will basically be a big-ole-pot-o-stuff. Or, a big-ole-pan-o-stuff-with-oil. This is how everybody starts. You chop up things that you like and mix them in a pot. Voila, dinner. It satisfies hunger, but it gets a bit boring after a couple years. After that, you might learn how to fry things, because it’s easy and it tastes good. Then, sautéing, which is easy to do but difficult to do well. Then, on to roasting, stewing, grilling, steaming, baking, etc. One mistake a lot of beginning cooks make is simply putting too much in the pot. The best recipes are the simplest—maybe 4, 5 ingredients. Or less. Taste is like painting—mix too many colors and you end up with brown.

I’m no expert chef. But I love cooking and I know quite a few recipes. Some recipes I can do pretty well. And this has been my experience learning to cook.

. . . and Ratatouille? Can we return to this topic? What is a ratatouille? Let’s end this post with a recipe for the beautiful ratatouille that Remy serves to Ego at the end of the film.
A ratatouille is a vegetable dish from the Provence region of France. It is always made with tomatoes, garlic, onions, zucchini, eggplant, bell peppers, carrots, and Provencal herbs (basil, bay leaf, and thyme). Usually, the tomatoes, garlic, onions, and herbs are made into a sauce, while all the other vegetables are diced and sautéed. It can be served as a side, or as a main dish over rice. What makes a good ratatouille is the softness of the vegetables; they must be thoroughly cooked, enough to intermingle, but not to the point of mushy-ness.

The key to making a good sauce in this recipe is to salt the vegetable slices before cooking. This takes time, but it’s necessary to relive excess liquid from the vegetables. If you skip this step, the sauce will end up too watery. Also, canned tomatoes make life easier but choose a tasty one—the sauce will, of course, taste like what you buy. To add flavor to the sauce, add herbs, salt and pepper, or just make your own sauce. And, because we’re layering, keep in mind when you’re doing the grocery shopping that the vegetables need to be about the same circumference.

1/2 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, very thinly sliced
1 cup whole tomatoes in sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 small eggplant
1 smallish zucchini
1 smallish yellow squash
1 longish red bell pepper
Few sprigs fresh thyme
pinch Herbs de Provence
Salt and pepper

1. 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.
2. With a very sharp knife, cut the eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash and red pepper into very thin slices, approximately 1/16-inch thick.
3. Spread the slices out on paper towels. Salt both sides and leave while you prepare the rest. You’ll need to blot out the excess water afterwards.
4. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
5. Pour tomatoes into an oval baking dish. Smash the whole tomatoes into a pulp with a fork. 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.
6. 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.
7. Drizzle the remaining tablespoon olive oil over the vegetables and season them generously with salt and pepper. Season with the herbs de provence. Sprinkle the fresh thyme over the dish.
8. Cover dish with a piece of parchment paper cut to fit inside.
9. Bake for 50 minutes to one hour, 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.
10. 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.

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