A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune to dine at Justine’s, a unique French restaurant in Austin that’s brimming over with ambient lighting, cleverly-named martinis, and the faux-rustic tables, seating, and other “vintage” accoutrements that seem to be standard issue in the city’s burgeoning hipster foodie scene. It was a lovely evening and I enjoyed some pleasant weather, good company, and fine food.
It was at Justine’s that I first tried ratatouille, a dish with which I was theretofore familiar only by name. And my objective here is not to condemn the restaurant for my lackluster ratarouille experience (it certainly wasn’t bad) but to commend them for inspiring me to take a stab at it in my own kitchen.
Whenever I feel like cooking a new dish, I try to build a theme around it. And in the case of ratatouille, I decided a French-themed evening was in order. Though I do not consider myself a purveyor of French cuisine, I do have a few recipes in my canon that, when served in conjunction with one another, might roughly approximate an unhurried evening at a Parisian bistro.
Please note: The following meal pairs nicely with a glass (or two…or more) of French Syrah. I had a bottle of Red Bicyclette.
I decided to make a roasted chicken for my carnivorous husband and then supplement it with lots of meat-free goodies that both he and I would enjoy. I’ve made this Food Network recipe several times now and it always turns out well:
- 1 (3 to 4-pound) chicken (I used a 5-pound chicken and increased the cooking time a bit)
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper (I used some good ol’ Morton salt)
- 1 shallot, sliced
- 1 bunch fresh thyme
- 1 lemon, zested in large strips (I can never get a lemon to zest in large strips, so my zest was more shredded…or mushed…but knock yourself out)
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon honey
There’s also a sauce that goes with this recipe but I’ve never been able to gather enough drippings to make it. Not to worry. The chicken should be pretty great on its own. Unless you have a super drippy chicken. In which case, please do make the sauce.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Trim the fat off the chicken and season the cavity with salt and pepper, then stuff it with the shallot, thyme, and lemon zest. Put the chicken on a v-rack or roasting pan and brush it with some of the olive oil. Then whisk the remaining olive oil together with the honey and brush the chicken with the resulting mixture (you’re supposed to brush the chicken with sprigs of thyme, but I just use my basting brush). Season with salt and pepper.
You’re supposed to tuck the wings under the chicken’s back but frankly, as a vegetarian, it’s hard enough for me to stuff seasonings up the poor little creature’s backside, so I don’t quite have the stomach for grotesquely contorting his appendages. But usually I do manage to tie the legs together with string, which helps keep those seasonings in place. Here’s what Rufus looked like in the oven (yes, I named him). His bum is so cute!
Put the chicken breast side down on the rack and roast until golden brown, 35 to 40 minutes. Then take it out of the oven, flip it over, baste it with its drippings (or, like me, brush on a little more olive oil and season with some more salt and pepper) and bake it for another 20 to 25 minutes. Let it sit for 10 minutes before carving. Voila:
I also made some roasted red potatoes. They’re very easy and delicious. I cut up red potatoes into half-inch pieces, place them in a glass baking dish, and add a few cloves of minced garlic, salt, pepper, Herbes de Provence (to taste — I use a lot, probably two tablespoons), and a generous amount of olive oil. Then I put them in the oven and stir them every 20 minutes until they’re cooked through and a little bit browned (usually about an hour or an hour and 15 minutes total).
Next up: I don’t know how “French” French onion soup actually is, but I’ve never made it before and thought my French-ish dinner would be the perfect time to try it out. I found this Giada recipe, and…wow.
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 large Vidalia onions, sliced (my grovery store didn’t have Vidalia onions so I just used the yellow onions I had on hand)
- 1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt (once again, I used regular salt)
- 1/2 teaspoon freshley ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
- 4 cups beef broth (I used two cups of water and two cubes of vegetable bullion to make it meatless; I think it came out just as good)
- 4 slices ciabatta bread, cubed (my grocery store also didn’t have ciabatta bread, so I just used the crustiest French bread I could find)
- 4 ounces sliced fontina cheese (OK, my grocery store did have fontina cheese, but it was wicked expensive; but I bought it anyway and I highly recommend you do the same, because it really is the perfect cheese for this soup)
- Special equipment: 4 (1 1/2-cup) ramekins (I used two 20-ounce oven-safe soup dishes to make two larger servings instead of four smaller servings, since the soup was my meatless entree)
Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a heavy saucepan. Add the onions, salt, and pepper and cook until the onions soften, about 10 minutes. Then add the thyme and broth and simmer uncovered for 15 minutes. I put two slices of French bread in each soup dish, poured the soup over them, and topped them with the sliced cheese. Broil them for about four minutes (I broiled mine a little longer because I had larger portions) and you get this:
Not to brag, but the picture can’t really do it justice. This is one of those dishes that tastes like it takes a lot more effort than it actually does.
And now for the ratatouille! I used an Emeril recipe, but from my brief internet research I’ve discovered that there are many variations and no real wrong way to make it. Here’s his recipe, with notes on my revisions:
- 1/4 cup olive oil, plus more as needed
- 1 1/2 cups diced yellow onion
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic (I like a lot of garlic, so I used three cloves)
- 2 cups medium diced eggplant skin on (I hate eggplant, to the extent that I can’t even look at one without feeling my gag reflex kick in [have you read The Unbearable Lightness of Being? that’s how much I hate egglplant] ; I substituted 2 cups of diced baby bella mushrooms, but I’ll use 2 1/2 or even 3 cups next time because they cook down so much)
- 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
- 1 cup diced green bell pepper (I used one whole green bell pepper)
- 1 cup diced red bell pepper (I used one whole red bell pepper)
- 1 cup diced zucchini squash (I used a whole one…)
- 1 cup diced yello squash (…aannnnd, you guessed it, a whole one of these as well)
- 1 1/2 cups peeled, seeded, and chopped tomatoes (I used one and a half tomatoes and I left the skin on because a.) it doesn’t bother me and b.) I was too lazy to peel them)
- 1 tablespoon thinly sliced basil leaves
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley leaves
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Add the onions and garlic and cook for about five to seven minutes. Add the eggplant (or mushrooms) and thyme and cook for another five minutes. Add the peppers and squash and cook for yet another five minutes. Then add the tomatoes, basil, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste, and cook for a final five minutes. I also added some crushed red pepper to make it a litte spicy, and I let it simmer on low for about 20 minutes to get more of a stewed effect. It was pretty damn tasty:
No adorable animated rats were involved/injured in the making of this meal. Alas, Rufus did not fare so well, but his death was not in vain: he was thoroughly enjoyed by the hubs.