"Anyone can cook!" That's the motto of Auguste Gusteau, spiritual guide/fairy godfather in my all-time favorite animated film, Pixar's Ratatouille. What a powerful message, and so true! While I was lucky enough to grow up in a household where cooking dinner was the norm, I know the idea of cooking gives a lot of people anxiety. Y'all, I'm here to further Gusteau's message. I truly believe that literally anyone can cook, and cook well! This Ratatouille-style ratatouille is proof - even though it looks fancy AF, it requires just a handful of ingredients, a sharp knife and a bit of patience.
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Cooking vs. Baking
I'd like to dispel some myths about cooking. While there are definitely some recipes out there that require a strict adherence to the letter of the instructions, I can almost guarantee that any *cooking* recipe on this site is not one of them. What I love about cooking is that you can ad-lib based on the ingredients you have on hand, your own personal flair, and the amount of time you're willing to put into creating something. If you've spent any time on this site, you know I'm guilty of using a lot of kitchen cheats and hacks to get things to the table with less fuss.
Baking, however, does require strict adherence to the recipe. There's a lot more science involved in getting baked goods to do the crazy alchemy of becoming a cake, cookie, soufflé or bread. That's not to say that you can't riff with baking recipes, it's just that until you have a deeper grasp of the science behind all those chemical reactions, it's generally best to stick to the recipe. Things like add-ins (e.g. chocolate chips, nuts, dried fruits) are an awesome way to customize recipes until you get the hang of it.
Ways to improvise this dish
While ratatouille itself is a classic French dish with a predictable flavor profile, the style of Ratatouille's dish is a tian, which is easily adaptable to other applications. Think of a tian as a kind of gratin, but without added liquid. In other words, it's just super thin slices of vegetables artfully arranged in a shallow baking dish and baked.
While this version sticks to the traditional ratatouille flavors of eggplant, zucchini, bell pepper and tomato, you could certainly achieve a similarly beautiful result with other veggies you can cut into rounds like potatoes, sweet potatoes, or onions. And even though not technically a tian, I'd argue that something like a tarte tatin (think the French version of an upside down cake) uses the same concept.
So if you want to shake things up, feel free to experiment! You could use a jarred tomato based sauce if you're short on time or don't have things on hand to make your own. You could use a salsa to make a TexMex version and switch in cilantro for the basil. Feeling indulgent? Try using a bechamel or mornay as your base sauce. You can also change up the kind of cheese you serve it with. While I love goat cheese, maybe you're more of a ricotta or mascarpone or burrata lover. Or try adding parmesan before you bake it. The options are nearly endless!
While making this dish takes a little bit of time (about 20 minutes of veggie prep and 20 minutes of arranging for me), I can guarantee it's not very hard if you have a bit of patience. I highly recommend you pour yourself a glass of wine and turn on your favorite playlist while you arrange it - it makes the time spent go by so much more quickly!
The most important thing to remember is to get the vegetables cut to the same thickness. I personally love using a mandoline with a 1.5mm guard for perfectly uniform pieces, but you can achieve a very similar result with a sharp knife and a cutting board. If possible, I also recommend looking for vegetables that are roughly the same diameter, or cutting larger elements like the eggplant into quarters to match your other veggies.
Once you slice everything, it's easiest if you keep the veggies in their own separate piles. Then, acting like you're playing a game of poker (or Go Fish!), arrange a single fanned out grouping of veggies in your hand. Last night, I had more eggplant than anything else, so my arrangement was as follows: eggplant-tomato-eggplant-zucchini-eggplant-summer squash-eggplant. With your sauce on the bottom of the cooking vessel, spread your hand of vegetable cards against the outside edge. Continue around and around in a nautilus shell/spiral pattern until you get to the center.
That wasn't so bad, right?
So, it may have taken a little bit of time, but look how pretty it is! And honestly, once you start getting in the groove, it's super satisfying. Joe told me it was akin to an adult coloring book or color-by-numbers. I couldn't agree more. It was soothing and offered the instant gratification of putting things in order. If you have any kind of organizational neuroses like I do, I'd bet this process will set your heart and mind at ease.
All that's left to do is sprinkle some salt and pepper and brush it with some olive oil (I flavored mine with fresh basil, thyme, oregano and garlic), cover it with foil and pop it in the oven. I served mine with some softened goat cheese and garlic bread batons for wiping up the sauce, but you could easily serve yours over couscous, rice, orzo or toast. It would also be fabulous with a fried egg on top. I'll probably use this as a side dish at Christmas, because look at those colors!
In any event, I hope you remember: anyone can cook, and that includes you! Just because this looks fancy, it doesn't mean that it's hard to do. Just have fun, be patient and trust yourself. I know you can do it! Until next time friends, happy cooking!
If you're looking for more vegetarian recipe inspiration, check out these other recipes:
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Ratatouille Style Ratatouille
- 1 medium Eggplant sliced thinly, quartered if necessary
- 2 Zucchini sliced thinly
- 2 Yellow Summer Squash sliced thinly
- 5 Kumamoto Tomatoes sliced thinly
- Kosher Salt, Pepper, Red Pepper Flakes to taste
Flavored Olive Oil
- 6 oz Softened Goat Cheese
- Toast Points
- Make sauce. Heat olive oil in cast iron skillet (or other oven safe skillet) until shimmering. Add onions and bell peppers, plus a pinch of kosher salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until softened.Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute, stirring often. Add remaining sauce ingredients and allow to simmer for a few minutes while you prep the vegetables.
- Remove sauce from heat. Spread evenly on bottom of pan, then arrange vegetables in a spiral pattern starting from the outside of the pan. Think of holding cards for a game of poker, slightly fanning them out. For me, since I had more eggplant than other veggies, my pattern was eggplant-tomato-eggplant-summer squash-eggplant-zuchinni-eggplant. Take a handful of veggie "cards" and spread them along the edge of the pan. Continue until all veggies are gone and spiral is complete.Sprinkle with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes.
- Combine all ingredients for flavored olive oil in small bowl. Using a pastry brush, brush oil and herbs over all vegetables.
- Cover with foil and bake at 375F for 25 minutes. Remove foil and continue baking for another 20 minutes, until vegetables are fork tender.
- Serve with toast points and softened goat cheese. Enjoy!