Ratatouille. Or, How Thomas Keller Made My Life Hell

Ratatouille: The case for Smell-o-vision

Ratatouille: The case for Smell-o-vision

Ratatouille.   Conjured in savory memories, it’s a fragrant eggplant-basil-and-tomato-y meal, served with crusty bread and a big glass of house red wine at a laid-back Montmartre bistro.  It’s 1987, and I’m with my girlfriend Woodford Reserve (on the rocks with a splash of spring water) knocking around Paris.

Me (far right) with my gal Woodford Reserve's parents (Bob & Penny Miller) and their famous friends: Paul Levy, Michael Holroyd, Margaret Drabble, and Georgia Levy. England, summer 1987

Me (far right) with my gal Woodford Reserve’s parents (Bob & Penny Miller) and their famous friends: Paul Levy, Michael Holroyd, Margaret Drabble, and Georgia Levy. England, summer 1987

We were in France and England during the summer between high school and college, and thanks to her parents’ superb restaurant picks, progressive ideas and generous wallet we travelled, and ate, and drank very well on our jaunt.  Well, better than I did for many years to follow, anyway.

Paris, 1987.

Paris, 1987.

Fast forward to 2007.  Over 20 years, I’ve finally (in my humble opinion) mastered a pretty kick-ass ratatouille in my home kitchen, a fact of which I’m inordinately proud.  I revel in finding the perfect glossy eggplant, the juiciest yet firmest plum tomatoes, and most gorgeous zucchini my garden or the market has to offer.   It’s wonderful atop a graceful swirl of pasta or buttery mound of polenta; or served as I remembered it in France, sopped up from a shallow bowl with generous crusts of bread.  For the longest time, my kids thought it was just another chunky pasta sauce; and until Sprite started eating only white food in first grade, both boys ate it all the time without question.

And then along came Thomas Fecking Keller.  Mastermind chef behind the food styling for Disney/Pixar’s 2007 film Ratatouille.

Ratatouille "All Stacked Up" in the movie.

Ratatouille “All Stacked Up” in the movie.

Don’t get me wrong.  I will eat Keller’s food whenever I get the chance.  And, I LOVE this movie.  I love the theme behind it; that “anyone can cook.”  I love the message—even preschoolers get it—that great soul-and-body nourishing food is about balance and flavor and freshness, not about how fast you can get it from a cardboard container into your mouth.  I love that drinking the occasional glass of wine by reasonable adults is neither demonized nor glorified; it’s just part of enjoying a great meal.  I love that the main female character is a culinary badass and has short hair, clogs, keeps her clothes on for the entire movie, and does NOT sing a goddamn peep.

And I loved hearing my children say as the credits rolled, “Mom, let’s make ratatouille!”

I spent all day with them making it: chopping, then individually sautéing each vegetable until just al dente.  We gently folded each perfectly cooked vegetable into an enameled Dutch oven, then covered it with parchment paper and slowly roasted it at a low temperature for most of the afternoon.  My boys took one look at the glorious results and said, “what’s THAT? ”

They were expecting Thomas Fecking Keller’s version:  as they call it “Ratatouille, all stacked up.”  Which I eventually figured out how to make, and it’s also pretty kick-ass.  But now they expect EVERY thing in our tiny kitchen to come out plated as beautifully as a goddamn Bon Appétit feature spread.  When I told this story to my buddy French 75, he said “what did you expect?  You brought this shit down on yourself.”

And I totally did.

I entirely support the notion that you eat with your eyes first, and that a beautifully composed plate should be at every meal served at our table.  It really doesn’t take that much longer to orient your vegetables attractively and put a little saucy swirl and some herbs on the plate, and I think in the long run it makes great food more attractive, accessible and approachable for more people.  Especially the shorties.

I just wish I didn’t feel backed into a corner to do so by a little rat named Remy, who’s possessed by a plating genius.  Fecking Keller.

Thomas Keller (left) constructing the ratatouille dished used for the film.

Thomas Keller (left) constructing the ratatouille dished used for the film.

Ratatouille “All Stacked Up”  (serves 4)

Keller’s version is a gorgeous layered casserole, which he then deconstructs for plating.  That’s beautiful and awesome, and is a great way to make this recipe, too.  I use 4” round mini springform pans with removable bases to bake the vegetable layers in, which the kids love to pack themselves for individual flavor preferences.   I also add mozzarella cheese and sometimes a sprinkling of Panko to this dish, even though it’s not at all authentic (hell, nothing about this is authentic, so why stop there?)   It just makes it more gooey, crunchy, and yummy.

4 Tbs olive oil (plus more for drizzling)

3 cloves garlic, sliced

1 medium eggplant

1 medium zucchini

1 medium yellow squash

3-4 plum tomatoes

1 red bell pepper, cored

1 medium onion

2 medium balls fresh mozzarella (or 1 cup shredded mozzarella)

1 small bunch basil leaves (12-16 large leaves)

½ cup Panko (Japanese bread crumbs) – optional

Ratatouille towers, ready to go in the oven (I hadn't added the Panko yet).

Ratatouille towers, ready to go in the oven (I hadn’t added the Panko yet).

Slice the eggplant into very thin (as thin as possible) rounds.  Spread in an even layer on a rimmed cookie sheet and sprinkle generously with kosher or sea salt (about 2 tablespoons).  Let sit for about 20 minutes, then turn over the eggplant slices and sprinkle with a bit more salt.  Let rest for another after 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, slice all of the remaining vegetables cross-wise with a very sharp knife or mandolin, making your rounds as thin as possible.  Sprinkle all of the vegetable slices with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Slice the mozzarella balls into thin rounds (or crumble) if using fresh cheese.

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees.

Remove the eggplant slices from the rimmed cookie sheet, and squeeze gently to remove as much liquid and salt as possible.  Don’t worry about completely removing the salt from the eggplant slices, it will add great flavor to your dish.   Wipe all the excess liquid from the cookie sheet.

In a large cast iron skillet, heat about 2 Tbs. oil over medium heat.  Add garlic slices and stir constantly to avoid burning; when the garlic starts to soften and brown (but not burn!) remove it from the oil with a slotted spoon and set aside in a small bowl.   In batches of 3-4 slices of eggplant per time (so as not to crowd your skillet), add eggplant to the oil and cook gently until slightly softened on each side and just starting to brown.  Repeat with remaining eggplant slices, adding more oil if needed.

Slightly oil the rimmed cookie sheet with olive oil.  Place four 4” mini springform pans WITH THE BASES REMOVED on the sheet pan, spacing equally.   Starting with a slice of eggplant on the bottom, fill each pan (or stack) with equal parts of each vegetable type and basil leaves, alternating layers of each type of veggie, and layering about halfway through with half of the cheese.  Put more cheese near the top layer, and press down gently as you go to compress the layers as much as possible.  If using springform pans, really pack those suckers full, the veggies will cook down quite a bit.  Drizzle the top of each tower with about 1 tsp. olive oil, the reserved garlic slivers, and sprinkle on top about 1 tablespoon Panko if you like a little crispy accent.

Place on the center rack of your oven and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until brown on top and bubbly.  Remove from oven and let cool for about 5 minutes to let layers settle.  To plate, slide a wide spatula underneath the tower (or underneath the edge of the pan), gently wiggling to make sure the eggplant is not stuck to the cookie sheet.  Run a small sharp knife around the inside edge of the springform pan to prevent sticking, then gently slide the spatula-laden tower to your serving plate; pull the spatula free from under the tower, then pull the springform pan straight up to release that baby onto your plate.  Garnish with a drizzle of oil from the pan and a sprig of basil.

Now grab a big glass of wine – you deserve it!


FrankenFruit & Fennel Salad

Watermelon-Tomato & Fennel Salad

Watermelon-Tomato & Fennel Salad

It seems like every damn food magazine/blog/tweet I’m getting this summer is featuring a watermelon-tomato salad variation.  Watermelon and Tomato!  I KNOW tomatoes are fruits, but that combination still freaks me out on principle.  Sometimes it’s featured with citrus.  Sometimes cheese (usually feta).  In various combinations of heirloom this and locally-sourced that.  Which is awesome, but hard to get the kids to eat, quite frankly.  I finally caved a few weeks ago and made this fecked up Frankenfruit combination salad for a dinner party at our place and it was a WINNER!  Even in the under-21 demographic.  Here’s the version I made (which is surprisingly vegan and gluten-free), but you could totally sub out other kinds of melon.  I personally like it served alongside a nice, bloody, grilled T-bone steak.

FrankenFruit & Fennel Salad

3 cups watermelon, cut in 1” cubes

1 fennel bulb, sliced into 2” long very narrow slivers, plus some of the chopped fronds

1 cup (about 2 medium) heirloom tomatoes, cut into 1” pieces

2 oranges supremed*, with juice

2 Tbs. olive oil

1 tsp. champagne vinegar

A generous pinch of Hawaiian Alaea sea salt or kosher salt

Fresh ground black pepper

Toss all ingredients in a large bowl, fold gently to combine.  Awesome additions:  kalamata olives, feta cheese, or steak.  Hells yeah. 

*Supremed citrus= cut off all of the rind of the fruit, including the white pith.  Holding the naked fruit in your hot little palm over a small bowl, cut in between the white section walls, releasing the bare fruit sections.  Squeeze the remaining juice from the sectioned hull into the bowl.  Put all the fruit sections and juice in your salad.  Throw the rest of that shit in your compost, or feed it to the chickens.

Basil & Goat Cheese Salad

Fresh basil and goat cheese salad with heirloom tomatoes

Fresh basil and goat cheese salad with heirloom tomatoes

Heirloom tomatoes and basil pretty much scream “summer is here!”  My girlfriend Saketini calls this easy salad packed with bold bright flavors a “rock star hostess” dish.  It is sturdy enough to travel well, delicious at room temperature, and super easy to assemble.  Plus, let’s face it:  it looks freaking gorgeous.  Last weekend I brought this salad to a casual pizza dinner at Lemon Drop & IPA’s house.  We all ended up dragging our pizza crusts through the juicy cheesy goodness on our plates to sop up every last bit.

Basil & Goat Cheese Salad (about 6 servings)

4 medium heirloom tomatoes, cored and sliced into wedges (about 2 cups)

2 Tbs. very good olive oil

2 tsp. pomegranate balsamic vinegar

Kosher salt & very coarsely ground (or cracked) black pepper to taste

1 large bunch whole fresh basil leaves (about 2 cups loosely packed or 4 oz.)

5 oz. log goat cheese, crumbled into big chunks

Mix together tomatoes, oil, vinegar, salt & pepper in a non-reactive bowl; let sit at room temperature for at least 15 minutes or up to 1 hour to meld flavors.  Rinse and pat dry the basil leaves, and spread in an even layer on a serving platter or salad bowl.  Just before serving, crumble goat cheese over the basil and top with the tomatoes and all of the juicy goodness.

If you are traveling with this salad, place the tomato mixture and goat geese in separate containers and add to basil just before serving.

Holy Mackerel! Tequila Ceviche

Several folks asked me why I didn’t use the perfectly wonderful opportunity of Cinco de Mayo to share some Southwestern and Mexican-inspired food and cocktail recipes on the blog.  After all, I lived in New Mexico for a while and for 8 years in Arizona.  But I didn’t get it done in time for the 5th because my man The Macallan and I were IN Cabo San Lucas, Mexico last week my friends, celebrating our 19th anniversary.  Without kids.  And quite frankly I was too busy fishing, reading on the beach, and drinking margaritas to send a remote post to the blog.  It was RESEARCH, y’all.

Me, my Roosterfish, and The Macallan's thumb.  We released this beauty, but ate a bunch of mackerel.
Me, my Roosterfish, and The Macallan’s thumb. We released this beauty, but ate a bunch of the mackerel we landed.

Cabo is justifiably famous for its spectacular sport fishing.  The Macallan originally proposed we’d fish four days, but I whittled it down to two with a possible third if we didn’t catch anything after two days.  We hired a guide service, Baja Anglers, for one full day exploring the spectacular beaches on the Sea of Cortez with Grant, and day fishing by boat off the coast of Cabo san Lucas with Capt. Alex and Luis.  We had a terrific time and caught a LOT of fish, which you can see photos of on the Baja Anglers blog (or follow me on Instagram at “abourbongal”).

Fresh-caught mackerel three ways: all of them delicious.

Fresh-caught mackerel three ways: all of them delicious.

After a long day of fishing, the last thing I feel like doing is going back to the rental condo kitchen with its lousy knives, matchbox-sized cutting board and sketchy non-stick pans.  Ugh.  In Cabo, several restaurants have “we’ll cook your catch” specials:  you proudly present your fishy triumph to the waiter and voila! 15-20 minutes later the chef sends out a delicious meal.  It doesn’t get much fresher than that.  At Solomon’s Landing, we had our fresh-caught mackerel prepared in ceviche, cooked with a lemon-pepper sauce, crusted with coconut and fried, and in a Spanish-style tomato based sauce.  The next day, we dined on mackerel cornmeal crusted and deep fried at Maro’s Shrimp House chased down with margaritas the size of our heads.

Battered and fried fresh mackerel, grilled shrimp, and huge margaritas at Maro's Shrimp House.

Battered and fried fresh mackerel, grilled shrimp, and huge margaritas at Maro’s Shrimp House.

Now that I’m back home, I’m more than happy to pull out my gorgeous cutting board and super-sharp hefty knives to do all of the slicing and dicing necessary to pull together my own citrusy ceviche.  Sure, it’s not going to be as fresh as we had in Cabo, but every delicious bite reminds me of Mexico.

Tequila Ceviche

Don’t skimp on the citrus juice here:  all of that acid is necessary to “cook” your fish.  After marinating for a while, you’ll see the fish change from grey to firm, opaque, and white.  A miracle of food science!  And please use fresh-squeezed juice, not that stuff in the bottle.

1 lb. firm fresh fish or shellfish (like snapper, halibut, scallops, shrimp, or any combination of these) cut into ½ inch cubes

½ cup fresh-squeezed lime juice (or a combination of lime & lemon)

3 medium tomatoes, seeded and diced

½ cup red onion, diced

1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and diced

A handful of fresh cilantro, chopped (about 1/8 cup)

1 Tbs. olive oil

A generous pinch of sea salt

A splash of tequila (about 1 Tbs.)

Mackerel Ceviche at Solomon's Landing, in the marina of Cabo san Lucas

Mackerel Ceviche at Solomon’s Landing, in the marina of Cabo san Lucas

To a non-reactive casserole dish (ceramic or glass), add all of the ingredients.  Very gently toss to coat.  Cover with plastic wrap and place in the coldest part of your refrigerator.  Stir again after 20-30 minutes to make sure all of the pieces of fish are covered with lime juice.   Depending on the type of fish and how big your cubes are, the ceviche should be ready in about an hour.  Garnish with avocado wedges and more fresh cilantro leaves, and serve with tortilla chips.  I like mine with plenty of heat, so I add a few shakes of Mexican hot sauce (like Tapatio) to my plate.

Quick and Easy Irish Soda Bread


Photo from the Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread. These folks are serious.

Every year I make Irish soda bread for St. Patrick’s Day –slathered with butter and served, of course, with corned beef and cabbage—and I think, “Geez, this stuff is so easy to make.  And super tasty.  I should make it more often!”  Then, I drink too many Irish Coffees, run out of buttermilk*, and forget all about this stroke of brilliance until I start seeing corned beef in the cases at Costco in late February.

As many of y’all know, I really only bake under duress (excepting the “3-Bs”: brownies, biscuits, and birthday cakes).  All that measuring, weighing on scales, perfect ratios.  Accounting for altitude.  Ugh.  There’s a wonderful bakery down the street from my house to which my very responsible children Sprite and Tim Collins can go as my representatives and pick up a few loaves for our family (and probably clear out half of their bread board sample offerings.  Sorry).  However, I’m not a fan of any of the “Irish” soda breads for sale in our fair city come March:  the ones I’ve tasted thus far are more sweet than savory.  Ick.  Cakey textured and loaded with sugar and raisins.  Double-ick.  And completely unlike anything I ate during my foray to Ireland, brief though that was (click here for a fantastic rant on what does and doesn’t qualify as traditional Irish soda bread.)

Soda breads—meaning breads leavened with bicarbonate of soda reacting to an acid, such as that found in buttermilk, rather than bread using yeast—are called “quick” breads for a reason.  They usually require little or no kneading, just the very basic incorporation of all ingredients, are not as sensitive about the higher ambient temperature needed to encourage adequate rising.  In fact, they generally don’t have a rising period, at all.  Foolproof even for the most inattentive baker (yes, that would be me).  SCORE.  There are lots of theories about why an “X” is cut in the top of the loaf before baking:  to let out the faerie spirits or as a symbol of Christianity, for instance.  Most bakers agree that the distinctive cut allows for more even baking of the dense bread.  I think its faerie exodus, FTW.

You can bake your soda bread in a cast-iron Dutch oven with great results –this is, after all, the traditional method—but a cookie sheet works perfectly well, too.  Personally, I enjoy any recipe that requires a good “thwacking” to determine doneness rather than guesswork or toothpicking.  And soda bread delivers on that count.  This bread dries out quickly, so eat it all within two days, as if that’s any hardship.

Mmmmm, where’s the butter?

Irish Soda Bread

1)       In a large bowl, measure out 3 cups of flour (I usually use 1 cup whole and 2 cups white cake or pastry flour, but you can increase your wheat flour up to 2 cups making this a very dense bread).

2)      To flour, add:
2 Tbs. brown sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. caraway seeds
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
Stir well to combine.

3)      To flour mixture cut in 2 Tbs. chilled butter with a pastry blender or 2 knives until the mixture resembles coarse meal.

4)      Make a well in the center of the flour mix; add 1 ½  cups buttermilk.
Stir until just moist (don’t overbeat!)

5)      Turn out the dough on a lightly floured surface; knead gently 5 or 6 times (just until the dough comes together). Pat dough into a ball, and then flatten gently to make an 8″ round.

6)      Lightly butter a cast iron Dutch oven or on a baking sheet. Place dough in center of baking vessel and cut a shallow “X” into the top with a sharp knife.

7)      Bake in a 350 degree oven for about 40 minutes, or until lightly browned on top. You know it’s done if you firmly tap the bottom of the loaf with a knuckle and it makes a sharp “thwack” sound.

8)      Cool on a wire rack. Serve in wedges with lots of butter. Yum.

*Yes, I’ve heard you can make your own buttermilk.

Have I ever done this?  No.

Guinness & Game Pot Pies

Guinness & Game Pot Piesantelopepotpie557K

Yup – it’s still winter here in the Wasatch Mountain foothills.  I don’t know what that Pennsylvania rodent predicted for the Eastern Time Zone, but we’ve still got it goin’ up in here in the Mountain West.

For me and mine that is a million kinds of awesome.  We love the mountains, the snow, and the big spring melt that brings great fishing come summer.   But our winters are BUSY, my friends.  My older son, Tim Collins, has slalom and GS ski races at Snowbird this weekend.  Our young ‘un, Sprite, has the parent-flattening triumvirate of hockey game, birthday party/sleepover, and ski lessons all within 24 hours heading straight at us.

In preparation for this winter onslaught, I’m making my easy do-ahead hearty stew.  It can be assembled any time in the afternoon within a half-hour or so, then set to simmer for an indefinite period of time.  Serve it with salad and biscuits and you’ll be universally lauded.  To make it even more appealing for visiting friends, pop a prepared pie crust sheet on top of the reduced stew in the Dutch oven while you are assembling appetizers and cocktails après ski, and bake it until crispy for a rustic Shepherd’s Pie.  Or, up the ante even more and scoop it into individual oven proof crocks and top with pie crust rounds.  So little time on your part, yet so much praise will come your way.

I used wild antelope scraps from last year’s hunt for this recipe, because that’s what I have on hand and need to clear out of the freezer.  It’s also very good with elk, deer, or your grocer’s “beef for stew.”  It is superlative (really folks, make this for your St. Pat’s dinner) made with lamb trimmings.

Guinness & Game Stew (or, base for Shepherd’s pie and pot pies) – 6 generous servings

½ cup flour

1 tsp. kosher salt

1 tsp. fresh ground black pepper

1 Tbs. bacon fat (or vegetable oil)

1 lb. antelope (or other red meat) cut into ½” cubes

2 Tbs. vegetable oil

2 Tbs. flour (reserved from dredge)

1 – 14.9 oz. can Guinness Stout beer

1 medium onion, chopped

2 medium carrots, chopped

8 oz. brown mushrooms, cleaned and quartered

2 cups small yellow potatoes, scrubbed and cut in ½” cubes

1 cup green beans, cut in 2” lengths (fresh or frozen)

2 cups strong game or beef stock

1 cup fresh or frozen sweet green peas

For Shepherd’s pie/pot pies

1 prepared pie crust (homemade or pre-packaged)

1 egg, slightly beaten and mixed with 1 Tbs. water

1)      In a medium bowl, combine flour, salt and pepper.  Dredge meat in the flour mixture.

2)      Meanwhile, melt bacon fat in a large cast-iron Dutch oven over medium-high heat.  When hot, shake excess flour off of ½ pound of the meat and add to the hot pan, making sure there is room between pieces.  Turn meat a few times to ensure all sides are completely browned.  Remove from pan with a slotted spoon, then repeat with the remaining ½ lb. of meat, adding more bacon fat if needed.

3)      After all meat is browned and removed from the Dutch oven, reduce heat to medium-low.  Add 2 Tbs. of vegetable oil and sprinkle 2 Tbs. of remaining flour-salt-pepper dredge over the hot oil.  Use a wire whisk to combine the roux.  Keep over low heat for about 20 minutes, whisking occasionally to prevent burning, until mixture smells nutty and is a pecan-ish brown color.

4)      Turn off the heat on the pan.  In a slow steady stream (keep back and watch your eyebrows!  – this gets steamy!) pour in the beer while steadily whisking the roux.

5)      When the roux-beer mixture is combined and smooth, return heat to medium.  Add all remaining ingredients – browned meat, veggies, stock—to the Dutch oven EXCEPT the peas (they’ll get mushy if you add them too soon), and the pie crust, etc (you’ll need that for the pie, silly!)

6)      Bring to a low boil, then immediately reduce to low heat, simmer, and cover.   Simmer for at least 1 hour, covered, for stew.  A couple of hours will have your meat meltingly tender; add peas 5 minutes before serving to cook through.

If this is your stew, enjoy!  If you are soldiering on for the big fancy finish, here goes!

Makes 4-6 generous servings

7)      You now have a fabulous velvety stew (or leftovers of it, which you are now going to convert to fabulous pot pies).  If you want to make Shepherd’s pie or individual pot pies, finish with the following steps:

8)      Uncover stew and cook over medium-low heat for ½ hr. to reduce and thicken sauce, stir often to keep from sticking.

9)      Preheat oven to 375*

10)   For pie crust, you can either use your own crust, or use a pre-prepared roll out crust.  In either case, mix one beaten egg with 1 TBS. water to brush on top of the crust(s) for crisp and shine

11)   Either put then entire pie crust on top of your stew in the Dutch oven, brush on egg glaze, prick a few times with a fork to vent, and bake the entire pot in the oven on the middle rack for 30-40 minutes or until browned


12)   Cut out four 5 ½” pastry rounds with a small bowl or cutter.  Tear remaining scraps into long pastry strips.  Ladle stew into four oven-proof soup crocks.  Top with pastry rounds; roll excess scraps into long strands and use to make extra ‘crusty edges’ around the top edge of the crocks.  Cut a small “X” in the middle of the crust to vent.

13)   Brush with egg/water mixture

14)   Place crocks on a rimmed baking sheet (you will have spillage!)

15)   Bake at 375* for 45 minutes, or until crust are browned.

YUM.  All of the above preparations are fantastic with a hearty Cabernet.