I can't believe that Disney has put out a film about an aspiring gourmet chef. A rat who aspires to be a gourmet chef! Ok, so it's about following your dream and not being discouraged no matter how ill-suited you appear for the job to others, about the synergy that develops when we help each other, and all that good stuff. But a chef!
You have to suspend disbelief to accept the idea of a rat chef, and late in the movie, a whole clan of rats in the kitchen. Surprisingly, it works and it’s lots of fun.
Not only does the film feature the preparation of food (to the motto “Anyone Can Cook”), but the signature dish is Ratatouille! That's my signature dish, too! In the film the dish is pronounced Răt' a too ee, as would be expected if the hero is a Răt. But I've always pronounced it Răw ta too' ee. I'm probably wrong. Nothing in the dish is raw.
However you pronounce it, ratatouille (the dish, not the movie) is the reason that I started growing squash in the first place. It’s one of my favorite comfort foods. We are just getting into prime ratatouille season, so the film is particularly timely.
The artists working on the film participated in cooking classes and worked with chef Thomas Keller who developed his version of the signature dish. His recipe for CONFIT BYALDI was recently published in the Idaho Statesman. It's not really ratatouille, but uses the same ingredients: summer squash, eggplant, tomatoes and peppers. It sounds delicious, but it's fancy and time consuming.
No farmers' market scenes made it into the film. Rats! (pun intended). The film doesn’t even mention the ingredients of the signature dish. Nor does it show that the local farmers’ market is the best place to find the freshest ingredients. I have plenty of eggplants in my garden: I started bringing them to the Nampa Farmers’ Market on July 21. I’m growing several unusual varieties, including orient charm, a long Japanese style eggplant that is about the same diameter as a nice sized zucchini. Perfect for Chef Keller's Confit Byaldi. Also some snowy white eggplants, a little thicker but smaller than orient charm. Both have wonderful flavor, not too astringint. They lack bitterness, and don’t need to be peeled. You can’t find these varieties at most grocery stores.
It’s frustrating not to have our own squash to go along with the eggplant yet. We are buying from other market vendors who planted earlier in the season.
One theme in the film that I appreciate is the play between innovation and tradition in cooking. Innovation when Remy, the Rat Chef, tries to explain to his brother how two distinct flavors mixed together can produce new flavors that are even better than the original separate flavors, more powerful and exciting. Pairing white peaches and lemon basil comes to mind. Tradition when a restaurant customer tastes a dish and its flavor recalls his youth.
As a market vendor, I know how important memory foods are. One of our customers always buys a bag of New Zealand spinach from us because he used to harvest it wild on the beach in Northern California. When we bring ground cherries, Physalis, older women tell us stories about harvesting them wild when they were growing up in Kansas or Michigan, or Emmett Idaho. Former Southerners are often thrilled to find a bag of collard or turnip greens at our booth.
We also appreciate the innovative customers who ask us "what do you do with this?" and purchase something they have never tried before based on tasting a sample, or reading a recipe.
In the movie the sole female chef calls ratatouille "a peasant dish". So, my recipe is a peasant dish. That's fine with me. It’s more of a stew, or an alternative to spaghetti sauce. If you haven’t tried it before, maybe the movie will inspire you to be innovative:
RATATOUILLE (Mediterranean vegetable sauté)
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, cut into 1/8" wide slivers
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2-3 medium eggplant, cut into ½ - 1" cubes
2 lb approx. summer squash – zucchini, patty pan, yellow, or a mixture, sliced
2 - 3 medium bell or other sweet peppers, preferably in several colors, cut into chunks.
½ lb mushrooms, sliced
1 lb fresh tomatoes, cut into chunks
Basil, Oregano, Parsley to taste (lots and lots!), fresh or (if need be) dry
In a wok or large skillet, heat olive oil until almost smoking. Add onion and garlic; sauté until translucent. Add cubed eggplant; sauté until it darkens. Add sliced squashes and peppers and continue to cook over medium-high heat until almost tender. Add herbs and tomatoes, lower heat to simmer, and cook until everything is tender. Right before serving, cover with sliced mozzarella cheese and let it melt. Serve over spaghetti.
For a cute preview of the film, visit the web site: http://www.ratatouille.com/ .