It is at heart a peasant dish that’s perhaps best eaten with crusty bread. In many ways it epitomizes the French countryside in the peak of summertime harvest. Having never been to France, I just might be talking out of my ass, but I have seen the movie Ratatouille. And if that doesn’t give me street cred, there’s also the fact that my girlfriend, a peasant, who has been to France, has taught me the ways of ratatouille.
She lives behind Wal-Mart on the outskirts of Las Cruces, a junction town in southern New Mexico. On Sunday, she works for food on a farm. She says that while her oven-roasted ratatouille method makes use of most any produce she brings home, above all else this dish showcases the tomato—even the sorry specimens she helps pull out of that sorry, sandy, alkaline, sun-burnt soil.
She sent me her recipe, which I followed as best I could. After a peasant meal that would have been fit for a king, I treated myself to a matinee of the Pixar-produced movie.
Had I seen this outstanding film when I was 10 years old, I might have considered becoming a real chef—instead of Chef Boy Ari, that wannabe foodie with the fraudulent nickname.
Nonetheless, this fictional story contains many parallels to the real Chef Boy Ari, which is to say, me. This movie is no less than a computer-animated creation story of Chef Boy Ari, whose many characteristics and archetypal roles are dispersed upon the shoulders of the film’s central characters.
There’s Remy, the hero, a rat with an extraordinarily sharp sense of smell, a natural talent in the kitchen, and dreams of becoming a real chef. And there’s Linguini, the janitor, useless in the kitchen yet thrown by fate into the role of head chef—a role he can pull off only via a symbiotic relationship with Remy, in which the rat controls Linguini like a marionette puppet, hiding under his chef’s hat and yanking on clumps of Linguini’s hair like joysticks.
There’s Anton Ego, the food critic, a terrifying figure who wields his power with imperial ruthlessness; eventually, a la the Grinch (who stole Christmas), a heartwarming personal transformation ensues. Until then, he’s evil.
And finally there’s Chef Gusteau, once a great chef, whose third, fourth and fifth chins long ago merged into a graceful parabola between chest and jaw, an undulating curve reminiscent of certain graphic depictions of Einstein’s interconnected concepts of gravity and space-time. After the loss of a Michelin Star—a result of his public crucifixion in print in a scathing review by Anton Ego (who compares Chef Gusteau to that other icon of mass-produced mediocrity: Chef BOYARDEE!)—Chef Gusteau dies of heartbreak. His restaurant slides into mediocrity, while the new manager diverts dwindling resources into Chef Gusteau-brand microwave burritos, egg rolls and—coming soon—corn dogs.
If we had more time I could discuss which parts of the real Chef Boy Ari are evident in which of these fictional characters. But we don’t have time, because I have a ratatouille recipe to deliver. And also, it just so happens, even while the newly filled-in blanks and cosmic dust of Chef Boy Ari’s creation story are still swirling in the air, I killed off Chef Boy Ari just this past week.
I’m not at liberty to discuss the details of his demise, but I will say it was done softly. And it was long overdue. Now I’m just Ari LeVaux—which sounds French but isn’t (it’s Belgian, brought into the family by my dad’s stepfather).
Ratatouille is a peasant dish and, from what I understand, peasant cooking—which is rooted in the particular ingredients of each particular region—is at the heart of French cuisine. And what is the soul of France, if not food?
Which makes “Ratatouille” an apt name for a movie, set in Paris, about the soul of food, I think.
While my peasant girl’s recipe may showcase the tomatoes, it’s the eggplant that holds it all together. She slices the eggplants lengthwise, thinly, and places them in a layer along the bottom of a glass or ceramic baking pan (not metal, which reacts with tomatoes). Atop that layer, she sprinkles salt, then extra-virgin olive oil (XVOO) and fresh rosemary. This is followed by layers of diced onions, thinly sliced zucchini, tomatoes, red bell pepper rounds, whole garlic cloves, and then repetitions of earlier layers.
Each layer is followed by a sprinkle of XVOO and rosemary. Layers of eggplant and zucchini, additionally, are first sprinkled with salt. The layers are repeated as deep as the dish allows.
When I make my peasant girl’s ratatouille, I like to add a layer of homemade croutons. I tear a crusty baguette to little pieces and toast them, tossed with olive oil, basil, oregano and chopped garlic. When they’re golden brown I stir in some Parmesan cheese. I add this layer somewhere near the top.
Cook with patience, for at least four hours at 350 degrees, but preferably six hours at 300.
Ask Chef Boy Ari: Apples, apples everywhere…
Q: Dear Ari LeVaux,
I just moved into a new rental, which has a big apple tree in the backyard. My landlord says that the apples are tasty, but he doesn’t want to mess with them—and in fact, he’d be happy if I ate them, because then there wouldn’t be as much of a “mess” on the ground (i.e., rotten apples) for him to pick up.
I look into that tree and I see hundreds of pounds of food—hundreds of thousands of calories! I can’t wait for these apples to get ripe so I can store them away and eat them all winter.
But I’m working two jobs and raising two kids, and I don’t have time (or desire) to be like Martha. I’m hoping you can give me some simple and delicious options for how I might store this resource.
—Love the Mess
A: Dear Love the Mess,
I appreciate you addressing your question to my real name, now that Chef Boy Ari is dead and all. But it seems so formal. For future reference, when you want to call me by a nickname, you can call me Flash.
Anywho, here are three options:
1) Join MUD (Missoula Urban Demonstration Project), then borrow MUD’s cider press. Get them to show you how to use it. Get clean jugs. Make cider; put in jugs; freeze jugs. Thaw and drink as needed.
2) Get one of those apple peeler/corer things that turns an apple into a slinky. Then break the slinky into rounds and dry them in a dehydrator. Store in airtight bags, in the freezer if possible (but not necessary).
3) Make applesauce and pressure-can it (consult a canning recipe).
Send your food and garden queries to firstname.lastname@example.org.