I’m a big believer in traveling via food — fork traveling? — so when my lovely friend Kristin Espinasse posted a photo of a delectable-looking dish of braised meat and summer vegetables, I ran to the market so I could recreate it myself. She called it “ratatouillaise” and it’s a hybrid of that quintessentially summer stew, ratatouille, and Italy’s beloved export, bolognese.
Kristin lives in Provence, which is one of my favorite places, the region where we enjoyed six years of happy holidays, renting the same house in the village of Bonnieux. I used to spend the mornings meal planning and marketing, followed by lunch at a local café, a long, lazy afternoon by the pool, cocktail hour, which edged into cooking dinner, and the joy of touching all that beautiful local produce. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
A few years ago, the house we used to rent was sold, and now Provence is only a memory. I keep a lavender pillow on the bench in my entry hall and when I brush against it, the fragrance is like a time machine, sending me back to the days when vacation meant simply throwing a bathing suit in a bag and hopping on a plane (and not worrying about nap schedules, toddler jet lag, if prune juice is available in France, etc. etc. etc. :)
With the days long and bright, what better way to revisit my beloved Bonnieux with this dish that sings of hot sunshine, cicada calls, and sprigs of thyme springing from garden cracks? Kristin was inspired by a recipe from Yvon Kergal, an artist, bon vivant, and mutual Facebook acquaintance who lives in Le Cannet des Maures. To prepare my version, I first read this article from Felicity Cloake, which explores several ratatouille methods, and then devised my own.
The key to an authentic (exceptional?) ratatouille is that all the different vegetables are cooked separately, then combined and cooked together slowly. Though tedious and time-consuming, Felicity Cloake notes that this makes the difference between “creamy soft vegetables,” with an “intense, almost jammy sauce that sings of the sun,” and “just plain vegetable stew.” So, yes, I scalded the tomatoes, roasted the red peppers, and teased away all the clinging bits of skin.
As Yvon recommended, I peeled the eggplant and courgettes in stripes, then cut them into small tronçons, or chunks. (I did not salt the eggplant because I
live on the wild side don’t think it makes a difference.) I sautéed these two vegetables in generous splashes of olive oil before adding them to a Dutch oven.
The dish has two secret (and untraditional) ingredients — a generous drizzle of honey, which heightens the tomatoes — and a dash of something spicy — I used harissa. Herbs, sautéed onions and ground beef join the vegetables in the covered casserole before it’s placed in the oven for a slow simmer. In the photo above, you can see the “raw” state — the vegetables still bright and crunchy. After a couple of hours, they turned soft and creamy, rich with a deep, meaty savor. Paired with couscous, this made a superb Sunday dinner — with leftovers for another weeknight meal (over pasta or soft polenta). The best part? It leaves your house smelling like a summer kitchen in Provence.
The word “ratatouillaise” is a hybrid of ratatouille and bolognaise (spelled the French way). Kristin says it’s “apparently valid in Scrabble, though no other definition is found.” Whatever the case, it’s synonymous with delicious :)
2 red bell peppers
3 onions, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 lb ground beef
2 lbs tomatoes, peeled and diced
2 large zucchini, peeled in stripes, and cut into 1.5-inch chunks
3 small eggplant, peeled in stripes, and cut into 1.5-inch cubes
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon harissa
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Salt and pepper
Cut the red peppers in half and remove the seeds. Line a baking sheet with parchment pepper and arrange the peppers on it. Roast the peppers at 400ºF until their skins have blistered, about 20 minutes. Peel the peppers and slice them into thin strips.
In a large Dutch oven, heat a tablespoon of oil and sauté the onions and garlic until they’ve softened and start to turn golden. Add the ground beef, breaking up the chunks with a wooden spoon. When the meat has cooked, stir in the tomatoes. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
Preheat the oven to 350ºF. In a (separate) sauté pan, warm a tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high flame, and then add the zucchini and a dash of pepper. Don’t overcrowd the pan — cook in batches, if necessary. Sauté the zucchini until gently softened and starting to turn brown, about five minutes. Add the zucchini to the meat mixture. Repeat with the rest of the zucchini, then the eggplant cubes. Add them to the meat mixture. Stir the red pepper strips into the meat mixture, along with the honey, harissa, bay leaf, thyme, oregano, and 1.5 cups of water.
Bring the mixture to a boil on the stove, then cover the pot and place it in the oven. Cook the ratatouillaise in the oven, stirring every half an hour, until the vegetables have collapsed and everything is “bien confit” (well reduced) — about 2.5 hours. If too much liquid remains, uncover the pot for the last 30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings.
As Yvon says “Voilà , ayé … A vos fourneaux et bon app’ .. Bizzzzzzzzz!”
P.S. Read more about my love for Provence here.