My editorial job at Mademoiselle did more than start my career in publishing, it broadened my culinary horizons. Thanks to working lunches, birthday gatherings and gut-busting company soirees, I became acquainted with fried calamari, vichyssoise, oysters Rockefeller, ratatouille, profiteroles, steak frites, and lemon bars and tuna sandwiches made by someone other than my mom. It was a heady time in magazine publishing: We worked hard and ate well, and the company footed the bill.
I had ratatouille for the first time at the Grand Central Café, which was then located in the mezzanine in Grand Central Station. Oh, God was that a great place to eat. My pals Nancy, Joanne and I would head across the street to the GCC, find a table and tear into the lightest, fluffiest, most delicious French bread this side of the pond. I don’t remember specifically what we talked about, I just remember a lot of laughing and withering stares from those who wanted a more subdued dining experience. I know, those seeking a more subdued dining experience should probably go somewhere other than Grand Central Station for lunch. I followed blindly into the ratatouille one chilly afternoon after Nancy ordered it. I figured, I like eggplant and tomatoes, so what could be bad? Besides, if it was gross, I could always fill up on bread and cheesecake and give Nancy the leftovers. I was happy to find it warm, comforting and acidic and sweet at the same time. It could be heaped with Parmesan cheese and scooped onto slices of French bread. It was perfect.
While Joanne was partial to the baked brie and apple, Nancy and I were major ratatouille fans, and we ordered it time and time again. Later that year, Nancy moved on to Rolling Stone, Joanne to a reporting job at a weekly, and I started the freelance life. We would meet for lunch when our schedules allowed, but I didn’t eat ratatouille again for a very long time.
When the hankering for ratatouille came over me a while back and I didn’t have anywhere to go to eat it, I had to take matters into my own hands and make it myself. I got the bright idea to roast the eggplant, which definitely makes it a more “meaty” dish―more like a casserole than a stew—which is very satisfying during this rainy cold spell we’re having in Los Angeles. Yup, it’s in the 40s. East Coasters, feel free to start laughing anytime.
Roasted Ratatouille Gratin
Makes 4 main-course servings
Gird your loins, dear reader: This is a flavorful vegetarian dish that requires mucho chopping. I can assure you, when you taste the fresh herbs simmered perfectly with the veggies and wine, you will forget that your back hurts and that your kitchen looks like the men of the WWE have just passed through. Chop everything prior to starting. No kidding.
This is great with warm crusty bread and a green salad and tastes even better a day or two after you make it. If you’ve never cooked with leeks before, make sure you clean them really well. They’re very gritty, and nothing ruins the taste of food more than dirt.
1 medium red pepper
Canola oil spray
1 medium eggplant (about 1 pound), cut into 1-inch cubes
¼ cup olive oil, divided
1 leek, white part only, thinly sliced
1 large shallot, finely chopped
1 cup thinly sliced zucchini (about 1 medium)
1 cup sliced cremini mushrooms (about 5 medium)
1 teaspoon sea salt
Dash black pepper
½ cup dry white wine (sauvignon blanc is nice)
1 (28-ounce) can good-quality plum tomatoes, chopped, with their juices to make 2 cups
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon dry bread crumbs
½ cup chopped fresh basil for garnish
1. Seriously, cut up everything and set aside until needed. Do the eggplant last, as it turns brownish after being cut. Preheat oven to 425° F. Place whole red pepper on a baking sheet and roast for 20 minutes.
2. Spray another baking sheet with canola oil and place eggplant on it in a single layer. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil and toss to combine. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
3. Turn red pepper over after 20 minutes. Add eggplant to oven, and roast until both are tender, about 15 minutes more.
4. While the eggplant and pepper are roasting, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Stir in leek and shallot and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in zucchini and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until zucchini is soft, 6-8 minutes. Stir in mushrooms, 1 teaspoon salt, dash black pepper, and wine. Simmer until mushrooms are soft, about 8 minutes.
5. Remove eggplant and pepper from oven. Turn oven down to 400°. Cover pepper with aluminum foil. Covering it creates steam that will loosen its skin, making the skin easier to remove. Allow pepper to cool about 10 minutes before handling.
6. Stir in the eggplant, tomatoes and their juices, thyme, and rosemary. Bring back up to a simmer.
7. After pepper has cooled, remove the skin, core, and seeds. Chop flesh and add to the stockpot.
8. Simmer, covered, for 5 minutes to combine flavors. Taste, and add salt and pepper if needed.
9. Pour everything into an 8x8 baking dish. Top with Parmesan and bread crumbs. Bake until topping is browned, about 20 minutes. Allow ratatouille to stand 10 minutes before serving.
10. Garnish each serving with fresh basil. Make sure to have more freshly grated Parmesan on hand to pass at the table. Assign clean-up and shoulder-massage detail and to whoever didn’t participate in preparing this.