Whenever I spot a cooking scene in a book or a movie I pay extra attention. The characters are being fed! The last one I saw was magical: it happens right in the middle of the three-hour long epic love story, Laurence, Anyways, by the young and talented Xavier Dolan. He was only twenty-two when he wrote and directed this film. The scene is simple: Fred, short for Frédérique, has just received a book of poetry published by her former love, Laurence. She reads it in the kitchen as she stirs a pot of something that resembles crème anglaise. She stirs, she reads, she stirs, she reads, she forgets the crème anglaise, and I won’t tell you what happens next. But the moment is heartbreaking. Mostly because Dolan has an eye for visual poetry. Fred never cooks and we rarely see her eat (in one restaurant scene she slams her fist on a plate, shattering the dish, in another she leaves before ordering food), and yet here she is, one hand on a wooden spoon, the other holding love poems. It comes as no surprise that she leaves the kitchen shortly thereafter.
 
I almost made a crème anglaise, just for the sake of it, but then I would have had to make a chocolate cake, or îles flottantes. Instead, I leafed through French cookbooks, and fell upon ratatouille.
 


 
Ratatouille. Touiller, from toil, means to stir up (a stew?), according to the Oxford English Dictionary tatouille was a kind of stew, a “bad stew,” to be precise.
 
There is no one way to make a ratatouille. From my experience, everyone has a recipe: throw the vegetables into a pot with water and cook on low heat for hours, cut the vegetables into tiny squares and pan fry, leave the vegetables in chunks, bake in the oven, or smother in olive oil and herbs. I don’t have a favorite. But memories of ratatouille are always pleasant. Most of the time I imagine one of those colossal wooden tables covered in shapely vegetables still encrusted with dirt. There is always a cutting board large enough to butcher a wild boar.
 
My cousin has a version of this in her beautiful cottage-like home in Rennes, where cookbooks are tastefully displayed on a shelf in the kitchen, and where the long and uneven wooden table overlooks a robust garden with dark green vegetation. When I am with her chopping eggplants and tomatoes for the ratatouille I feel so far away from New York. It’s a thrilling state of being. It makes me want to eat three giant pots of ratatouille. The last time I was there, in June, we ate ours with leftover bread from a picnic.
 
Here, in Brooklyn, the view is less bucolic. There is my spacious kitchen (we could tap dance in the middle), but with counter space big enough for only a small cutting board. I have found a new recipe that works well. First I cut the onions and as they cook in a pan I cut the eggplant, and as that cooks in the pan with the onions I cut the rest and throw the tomatoes, zucchini and peppers in a large roasting pan. I can do this quickly with a mandoline. Then I throw the pan into the oven and wait. The result is a creamy ratatouille with enough crunch to keep you on your toes as you sift through the vegetables, half-caramelized from the last five minutes under the broiler, but soft from an hour of cooking in their juices and covered by foil. I don’t know that I’ll be making my ratatouille any other way. Unless, of course, I am with my cousin in her kitchen.
 
The recipe comes from this gem, The Little Paris Kitchen by Rachel Khoo. Having recently received the cookbook as a gift, I’ve mostly looked at it rather than studied its recipes. A delightful pastime as Rachel Khoo is beautiful, and there are plenty of stylish photos of her walking through French markets or holding a tub of strawberries or gazing off into the distance as she sips coffee.
 
Eat the ratatouille hot, out of the oven. Warm, an hour or two later. Cold, the next day on toast. Or re-heated, with an egg and bread, for brunch.
 
Ratatouille Niçoise
 

 
Ingredients:
1 clove of garlic, crushed to a paste
1 onion, finely chopped
3-4 sprigs of thyme, leaves only
3 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
1 large eggplant (or three small eggplants), thinly sliced
1 zucchini, thinly sliced
1 red bell pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
1 yellow bell pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
6 tomatoes, cut into quarters
A pinch of sugar
Salt
 
Directions:
 
Preheat the oven to 350F.
 
You can slice the eggplant and zucchini with a mandoline or a knife.
 
Gently fry the garlic, onion, and thyme leaves in two tablespoons of olive oil. Fry until translucent and soft. Then add the eggplant and continue to cook until soft, for about five to ten minutes.
 
Toss the remaining vegetables in a large roasting pan with another tablespoon of olive oil. Add the onion and eggplant and stir well. Add two big pinches of salt and stir.
 
Cover the roasting pan with aluminum foil, making sure it doesn’t touch the vegetables. Bake for an hour, then stir the vegetables a little and bake for another ten minutes uncovered. Sprinkle the sugar on top and cook under the hot broiler for five to seven minutes, until the top layer is caramelized. Stir, taste for salt, and drizzle with some good olive oil.
 

 
 
 

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