Philippe’s ratatouille reminds us of sojourning in the French-Swiss Borderland (Best Kept Secrets and Off-the-Beaten-Path Sojourn).
Every summer, in France, my father-in-law Philippe (who owns and runs the Le Sauvage Hotel where we base our French-Swiss Borderland sojourns) makes us a Southern French dish called ratatouille. Basically, it is a ragout of summer vegetables. The traditional recipe uses a mixture of dried herbs typical of the Provence region of France called simply herbes de Provence. It can be bought easily in any French grocery store but Philippe doesn’t usually use it in his version of ratatouille. He often vacations in the south of France with his wife and youngest son. The herbs grow easily in the wild there bringing hot dry breezes scented of rosemary, thyme and other aromatics. So when he makes ratatouille in the lush Franche-Comte he doesn’t use the same recipe but rather the same idea by using the herbs that fragrance his garden.
In the courtyard of the old manor where he lives there is a big old bay laurel tree that someone planted long ago. Every year, when he prunes the tree, he dries some of the branches in the kitchen. When he’s cooking his version of ratatouille he usually plucks a couple of dried leaves off the branch and lets them simmer with the vegetables so that the dish is infused with the flavor of his garden. We often eat it on steamy rice sitting outside around a table in his garden, soaking up the long sunny summer evenings with a glass of rosé. As a result, there is something very special about his ratatouille that I can’t duplicate even when I use his bay leaves… it is the association of the flavors with the garden and those long leisurely summer nights.
(Salt and Pepper)
DIRECTIONS: (Best when prepared a day in advance.) Lightly brown the garlic in olive oil. Add the other vegetables which have been cut into big cubes. Simmer for several hours. VARIATIONS: 1) For a delightful smoky flavor that is a bit more sophisticated, do these steps first: broil the eggplant and peppers until the skin is just burnt (turning to burn all sides evenly), steam each broiled vegetable separately in a closed paper bag, peal, cube and continue as above. 2) Caramelize onions before browning the garlic. 3) Use herbs from your garden.