Ratatouille

photo credit | gourmetmetrics

August means mid-summer vegetables and mid-summer vegetables mean it’s time for me to make some ratatouille.

Variations on this simple vegetable stew appear in Mediterranean countries from Spain to Greece, but I’ve always imagined the primary inspiration came from a parsimonious farmhouse lady somewhere in the south of France. Faced with nature’s seasonal bounty arriving all at once, ratatouille was her answer to the eternal question of what to do with too many vegetables.

THE FACTS

Ingredient list: eggplant, zucchini, sweet red peppers, tomatoes, onion, olive oil, garlic, basil, salt.

Nutrition Facts: balanced and unremarkable. No “superstar” vegetables to boost the numbers. High Fat >20%. Fatty acid ratio is favorable.

Degree of Processing: freshly prepared from mostly minimally processed ingredients (98% by weight) and 2 processed culinary ingredients (olive oil, salt).

Like all factual statements, the results are cold, hard, impersonal, and detached.

THE PROBLEM • The facts have little to do with the subjective experience of eating.

What makes my ratatouille so wonderfully satisfying to me has absolutely nothing to do with the cold hard facts.

The first time I tasted the dish was the summer in the south of France where I found myself getting a cooking lesson, along with a group of American high school students, from the chef of a local restaurant. The vegetables got chopped up and thrown into a pot with copious additions of olive oil and salt after each handful. The chef didn’t use a recipe.

I make a ratatouille every August to celebrate the event. I remember the beautiful warm summer day in Aix-en-Provence, a small university city in the Côte d’Azur region of southern France. And I always use lots of olive oil. I’ve recreated the dish in Berkeley California, Montréal Québec, the south shore of Long Island, and now in New York’s Hudson Valley. Each time I put the ingredients together I get variations in taste but I always make the dish in August with locally grown season vegetables.

I don’t use a recipe either.  I just recreate the tastes and textures of how that first delicious bite smelled, looked and tasted in my kitchen.

Each of our past experiences form our subject eating experience. The memories we bring to the plate have more hold on us than any list of nutrients and ingredient in a labelled serving. And that is the problem with the facts approach to eating. Just compare the cold hard facts of the label with the warmth of the colors and radiant complexity in the photo. Now ask yourself which one you would prefer on the plate …