I fell in love with ratatouille when I was 17 and working as a chambermaid in Provence. For staff meals at the hotel where I worked and lived, we were usually served yesterday’s grey meat and a side of rice. I was a vegetarian at the time. There was also a big pail of rice pudding in the fridge, for those who wanted dessert. I always wanted dessert. So for the first few weeks, I was essentially living on rice and rice.
That was until I befriended the pastry chef, Emma, a young Englishwoman who also worked the early shift. After work, we’d explore Provence. We’d go collect the pigeons for the kitchen, pilfer plump cherries from overhanging branches in the orchards, lose count of refills at village wine festivals or maybe even kayak at top speed through alarmed throngs of nudist swimmers in the rapids of Ardeche. And when we got back to her home in the evenings, Emma would feed me nutritious and wonderfully tasty food–food that wasn’t white.
She introduced me to ratatouille, a rustic Provencal vegetable stew full of chunky red peppers and tomatoes, green and yellow zucchini, deep-purple eggplant and pink-tinged onions. There’s also enough garlic in this dish to make a Frenchman fist-pump the air. And there are herbes de Provence too–a robust blend that might include: basil, bay leaf, oregano, sage, rosemary, marjoram, lavender, savory, tarragon and thyme.
Sadly I don’t have Emma’s ratatouille recipe, although I’m sure even Emma doesn’t have it, because she always improvised. But I do have very happy memories of that time with her–a time when the hard labour of hand-waxing tiled floors and carrying metal bed frames up spiral staircases was cancelled out by post-shift drives by lavender crops, fields of chatting sunflowers and rocky mountains with summits sculpted like lace. And when I make my own version of ratatouille, I’m suddenly sitting down again at the little table in Emma’s marble-floored, sun-filled apartment, with her toddler and a wispy-blonde-haired little sister or two, to savour her rich veggie stew topped with melting goat cheese and a warm, herby bread roll on the side.
I left France a good ten pounds heavier, thanks to Emma, but I have that girl to thank also for saving me from scurvy.
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My attachment to ratatouille inspired me to develop three new recipes this week, while trying out the KitchenAid 13-cup food processor, which I’m also giving away in a new contest.
The first, Ratatouille & Goat Cheese Phyllo Tart, I made with the help of the slicing disc. You can change the thickness of the vegetable slices with an external lever. I set it right in the middle, to keep the veggies a little chunky, but still pretty. I used the low speed setting for the softer ingredients, so they kept their shape beautifully. You’ll need very slim zucchini and eggplants to pass through the feeder tube, by the way, even though it has three different shape and size options. My eggplant got a little stuck initially, which made for a few paper-thin slices as I forced it through. But otherwise, I was thrilled at how quickly I could knock this dish out. I hope you’ll give my ratatouille tart a try–and don’t forget to try your luck in the giveaway contest!
Ratatouille and Goat Cheese Filo Tart
3 tbsp olive oil
1 medium red onion, sliced into strips
3 large ripe vine tomatoes, sliced
2 tsp herbes de Provence
1 red bell pepper, cut into strips
1 small, slender yellow zucchini, sliced
1 small, slender green zucchini, sliced
1 small, slender eggplant (Japanese, Chinese or small Italian), sliced and pan-fried until golden on both sides
3 small cloves garlic, crushed
3/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
75 mL butter, melted
225 g phyllo pastry, defrosted
100g soft unripened goat cheese, crumbled
1. Preheat oven to 375F (190 C).
2. In a large skillet on medium-high heat, warm the olive oil. Saute onions for a minute, then add tomatoes and herbes de Provence. Stir occasionally, for a few minutes, allowing tomato to break down. Add bell pepper, zucchini, pan-fried eggplant, crushed garlic, salt and pepper, and cook until vegetables are tender. Adjust seasoning to taste, then remove from heat.
3. Brush melted butter onto the bottom and sides of a small (7-inch/17.78 cm) springform tin. Layer slightly crumpled phyllo pastry on top, brushing with melted butter in between layers, to create a tart case, with no holes.
4. Distribute crumbled goat cheese evenly along bottom of tart case. Carefully fill centre with cooked vegetables. Bake for 25-30 minutes, watching colour carefully, until pale golden. Allow to cool ten minutes, then carefully remove from springform pan. Serve warm or cold, garnished with a sprig of fresh thyme.