“Anyone can cook!” is the light-hearted and joyous message echoing through movie theaters across the country in the new animated movie, “Ratatouille (rat-a-too-ee)” — about a rat who loves to cook, in spite of himself.
If a rat can do it, you can too, right? Granted, Remy is a no odinary rodent — his gourmet’s palate can pair a found morel mushroom with a bit of discarded gruyere cheese, and when he is serendipitously struck by lightning — voila! a gougere aux forestiere. And Remy can read cookbooks, too!
“Anyone CAN cook” is the philosophy behind the Way of Cooking too. Bringing the Tao’s flexibility to the kitchen usually means adapting ingredients and methods, as the Way of Cooking encourages us to do. Other times it may be a matter of changing our perspective on a perceived “problem.”
I remember one summer when T and I were with his parents at their lakeside camp in north Maine and my mother-in-law (G) was preparing spaghetti bolognese for dinner. As we sat down, G mentioned that she had made a serious mistake while cooking, and that we might not be able to eat what she had prepared. She had mistaken the cinnamon bottle for another spice, and had added it to the sauce before she caught herself. If we couldn’t bring ourselves to eat it, she said, she would understand and take no offense. When we tasted the sauce, however, we could detect only a hint of cinnamon in the perfectly seasoned sauce. I told G that the Greeks make a pasta with a cinnamon-laced meat sauce called pastitsio. She hadn’t made a mistake, she had just made a different dish! (OK, it didn’t have a bechamel topping, but let’s call that a technicality).
So be easy on yourself and be open to new things — and you may surprise even you! But most importantly, cook for and nourish yourself, and for and with the ones you love. Even in spite of yourself. In the climax of “Ratatouille,” one of the characters takes a bite of the eponymous eggplant-and-zucchini dish and is transported back to a long-forgotten time when he felt loved and secure and cared-for. Food is so often connected to memories. Not only grand holiday and special occasion meals, but also baking pies with mom when your older brother and sister are at school, or watching dad make his secret spaghetti sauce. Cook often. Cook with and for the people you love. Just cook. Anyone can cook.
After watching Remy’s movie twice this summer, I couldn’t help but search out my favorite ratatouiile recipe and take advantage of Oahu’s locally grown zucchini, eggplant, onions and tomatoes to make a more traditionally rustic version of this Provencal classic. This is a terrific meal for people who think they don’t like vegetables. It is toothsome and filling, and easy to mistake the sauteed eggplant for meat. Best of all, the cold leftovers make a great sandwich on a toasted baguette or rolled up in a flour tortilla with a little shredded Mozarella.
There are as many versions of this vegetable entree as there are cooks, but I think the key is to saute the eggplant and zucchini separately and allow each vegetable to caramelize lightly. It brings an added depth of flavor that’s missed when all the vegetables are added at the same time and simply simmered in sauce. But if you’re pressed for time, better to forego the added step of frying the vegetables separately than to talk yourself out of trying this wonderful dish.
(adapted from a recipe from my alma mater, Leith’s School of Food and Wine, London)
1 1/2 lbs. long Japanese eggplant, halved lengthwise and sliced
1 1/2 lbs. small or medium zucchini, halved lengthwise and sliced
1 large yellow onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, finely diced
1 medium green bell pepper, seeded and diced
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. white pepper
1 1/2 lbs. Roma tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
1/4 cup julienned fresh basil
2 Tbl. minced fresh Italian parsley
sea salt to tate
Preheat large saute pan on medium heat. Add enough oil to coat bottom of pan, and add eggplant to cover pan (may have to do in batches). Lightly brown both sides and remove from heat. Add more oil and repeat with rest of eggplant. Repeat process with zucchini.
Lower heat and in the same pan cook onion until translucent (this may take 8-10 minutes). Add garlic and bell pepper after first 5 minutes. When onions are translucent, add coriander and white pepper and cook another 1 minute.
Raise heat to medium-high and add tomatoes, basil and parsley, and cook uncovered 10 minutes. Taste sauce and season with salt.
Add back eggplant and zucchini, cover and simmer 15-20 minutes or until vegetables are tender, but not falling apart.
A crispy, light baguette (on Oahu, St. Germain’s demi-baguettes are the closest to the real thing we’ve found) and a nice pinot noir or syrah (depending on your tolerance for tannin) will round out your meal.
While we would absolutely love to pair this with a wine from France’s Bourgogne or Rhone regions, we try to drink as close to home as possible. Since Hawaii doesn’t (yet) have a robust home-grown viticulture, we look to West Coast and Australian wines to fill the bill for now.