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A rat that you want in the kitchen

by Ari LeVaux

Ratatouille, the rustic French stew, is an icon of late summer and autumn. A simple mix of tomatoes, eggplant and summer squash prepared with herbs, garlic, onion and other veggies, ratatouille is the kind of bucolic dish that put French cuisine on the map. But unlike a lot of French dishes that went uptown, ratatouille never changed. It isn’t possible to make a fancy ratatouille, as attempting to do so would change it into something else. Ratatouille is grounded in the terroir of the Mediterranean countryside, where it came from, and is earthy to the core. It’s a simple, elegant combination of garden ingredients that is easy to prepare, hard to screw up, and will win over the most ruthless critic.

Case in point, the 2007 animated film “Ratatouille,” which has become a culinary classic. The action goes down in Paris, and culminates with the serving of an inspired batch of ratatouille. The dish was created by a talentless chef named Linguini, who was more qualified to clean the kitchen than cook in it.

Linguini’s creation was orchestrated by a small, furry culinary savant named Remy the Rat, who maneuvered Linguini around the kitchen by hiding in his hat and pulling on his hair, as if driving a forklift. The finished ratatouille was served to Anton Ego, the evil food critic who delights in the casting of fear into the hearts of chefs, and destroying the occasional career.

Ego arrived at the restaurant with sharpened pen ready to bury the upstart chef Linguini, but instead was transformed by the ratatouille. Ego’s first bite took him back to his grandmother’s house in the French countryside, when he was a boy. As Ego ate, his tough urban veneer, along with his pride, ambition, lust for power, and general meanness, all melted away. All that remained was an innocent boy eating his grandmother’s simple mix of homegrown vegetables. With Ego’s return to the garden, order was restored to the universe, all thanks to the humble dish of baked veggies.

The film’s significance has been analyzed and debated many times over, with its many philosophical quotes passed around the interwebs. To me, the movie was a mirror in which I saw pieces of myself, including in all three of the film’s major characters: the rat, the klutz, and the jerk.

I see myself in the hapless Linguini. On some days, such as when I’m cooking for a crowd, my inner Linguini emerges as the embodiment of choking, failure, inadequacy. Yet somehow, he manages to pull it off when it counts. Perhaps everyone has a little Linguini in them.

Not everyone has a big nose like Remy the Rat, but I do. Remy’s nose, like mine, guides him through the kitchen and informs his culinary sensibility. The rat and I share a fascination with chewing distinct ingredients together, such that previously undetected flavors can be drawn out from one another by pairings that provide the proper contrast.

“Each flavor is totally unique,” Remy remarked at one point, as he co-munched a mushroom with a piece of stinky cheese. “But combine one flavor with another, and something new is created.”

Such is the case of ratatouille the dish. As the diverse flavors of the mature garden combine, they do things to each other, changing one another, and the final product becomes something greater than the sum of its humble parts. Everything melts together in the tomato juice and olive oil. Garlic and aromatic herbs permeate the whole business. The mushy eggplant surrenders its form, while the zucchini just hangs onto its autonomy; both become supersaturated with juices, and release them into your mouth as you chew. Each ingredient is at its best, thanks to the presence of the others.

And then there is Anton Ego, the snobby food critic whose opinion sways the fortunes of those who are doing the work he criticizes, while he remains exempt from judgment. Having been a restaurant critic for years at my local newspaper, I’ve tasted this power, and felt the intoxication it can give. I like to think I’m not a jerk like Ego, but nonetheless, I can relate to the guy.

Perhaps the true message of Ratatouille, the movie, is that anyone can make ratatouille the dish, even a klutz, or a rodent. And while easy to make, even the sternest of critics are easily pleased by ratatouille. That’s a good combination. 

Ratatouille, the recipe

There are many recipes for ratatouille. Mine utilizes larger pieces, and is slightly reminiscent of lasagna in how the ingredients are layered together. To make it you need equal parts eggplant, tomato and zucchini.

Start with a layer of eggplant or zucchini in the bottom of a baking pan, and then alternate layers of tomato, eggplant and zucchini. Intersperse the layers with chopped garlic or even whole cloves, along with basil leaves, rosemary and/or oregano. Add sliced fresh peppers and/or pitted olives, if you wish. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pour olive oil liberally between the layers, with just a splash of vinegar.

Bake at 350 for roughly an hour per inch of the casserole’s depth. You want to cook it until there’s almost no water left bubbling in the pan, but if you dry it out too much the layers will curl and warp like old coats of paint.

The finished product can be enjoyed immediately, but it’s better the next day, after the ingredients have a chance to merge. Leftovers can be frozen for year-round consumption whenever it’s time for a summertime flashback. Serve your ratatouille over toast or pasta, or as a side dish. Or do like we do and gobble it out of the pan. It’s a complete meal just like that.n

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