Bring France to your table with summer's bounty and ratatouille
Taste columnist and chef Greg Atkinson urges us to celebrate summer with this dish of zucchini, eggplant and tomatoes. This recipe is from a beloved cookbook with an underground following.
photographed by John Lok
WHEN BARON Roy Andries de Groot traveled to Southeastern France in the early 1970s, he was seeking to uncover the mysteries of an herbal liqueur produced by monks in that region. There, high in the alpine valley of La Grande Chartreuse, he inadvertently came upon a small, seemingly enchanted inn known as the Auberge of the Flowering Hearth, a 200-year-old house "serving country dishes of the mountain region ... local cheeses and game meats."
The owners, les Mesdemoiselles Vivette Artaud and Ray Girard, produced French food with great style, good wines and very little fuss. De Groot's descriptions and recipes were recorded with such finesse that now, almost 40 years later, the book named after the inn has amassed an underground following, and a third generation of readers is being transported to that magical inn to taste with De Groot the simple dishes that defined, at least for a few of us, what country French cooking is all about.
First, meals are constructed in courses that arc from one dish to the next without being overwhelming. Consider, for instance, a soufflé of alpine cheeses followed by rabbit in red wine, served with handmade noodles, then a salad of Belgian endive and bacon, and finally walnut ice cream.
Beyond the planning that places every dish in a suitable context, there is a devotion to regional and seasonal specialties on the one hand, and a freedom on the other to select from the entire repertoire of the French table — even when preparing a dish with local ingredients.
One of the last menus in the book records a farewell luncheon presented buffet style. Among them is an unassuming ratatouille, the glorious summer-vegetable salad of Nice that can be served hot or cold.
Greg Atkinson is a Seattle-area chef, author and consultant. He can be reached at email@example.com. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
Ratatouille from "The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth"
Serves 6 generously
A Provençale specialty, the recipe here is based on an alpine version in which butter is used in addition to the more typical olive oil, and the normally dominant garlic is held in restraint.
3 tablespoons butter, divided
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 medium-sized yellow onion, peeled and cut into large dice
3 Roma tomatoes, each cut lengthwise into six wedges
2 small eggplants, cut into 1-by-2-inch batons
2 small zucchini, cut into 1-by-2-inch batons
1 green pepper, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch strips
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
1 bunch basil (about 24 leaves), stems removed and cut into ribbons
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup grated Gruyere cheese
1. Saute the onions in 1 tablespoon each of the butter and olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat until they are just turning golden. Add the tomatoes and turn them gently to warm them through without allowing them to disintegrate. Transfer the tomatoes and onions to a large, shallow dish.
2. Add the remaining butter and oil to the pan and saute the eggplant, zucchini and pepper until the vegetables are softened, about 5 minutes. Lift the cooked vegetables out of the pan with a slotted spoon, transferring them to the dish with the onion and tomatoes.
3. In the remaining oil and butter, warm the garlic and basil leaves then stir in the vegetables. Cool the dish to room temperature if desired. Serve with grated Gruyere on top.