Vegetable Ratatouille Recipe and Basque Origins
A Delicious French Provencale Dinner
In the center place of honor on this French cuisine table shown above, we find
- Ratatouille, arranged neatly in rows in a serving dish and used as the Main Dish
To the left of the ratatouille, we have
- Melon Slices and Proscuitto
- Chunks of fresh Cantaloupe
- Gruyere Toast Rounds
- A pot of mustard dipping sauce
In smaller serving dishes at each place setting we see
- Avocado, Pear and Bleu cheese salads
- Potato Leek Soup
Photos Of Basque CountryClick thumbnail to view full-size
Origins and Differences
Some food historians maintain that ratatouille is a traditional southern French dish first developed in Nice, France. However, evidence enough suggests that it may have begun in Catalonia or even the Basque Country that incorporates parts of both France and Spain. Regardless, several local countries have a tradition of thinner or thicker versions of stewed vegetables used as soups and relishes. Different origins makes the dish's history more interesting and rich. Upscale versions make restaurants more popular and home chefs make various changes to suit their imaginations.
Ratatouille has also been traced to the Balearic islands. From reading and attending cooking seminars for a number of years, I am satisfied that the dish began early in the Basque Country as a stew with limited ingredients among wonderful people that we know little about, even through the National Geographic Genome/Human Migration project.
Interestingly, while tomatoes and zucchini are main ingredients of the dish today, it was made with other ingredients before 1600.
Tomatoes and zucchini came to Europe only from the Americas and eggplant traveled in from India -- I would not be surprised if India had the earliest recipe, although presumably spicier than today's.
The French did not have these ingredients before 1600, but the Basque used mutton, potatoes, and a few other root vegetables for a stew before that year. Other groups added whatever was native to their plant foods.
A well respected, comprehensive and authoritative cookbook that is a collectible from the late 19th Century is called La cuisiniére Provençale by J. B. Reboul, offers over 1100 traditional Provencal dishes without ever mentioning ratatouille at all. That absence casts highlights on other places of origin.
Opinions vary on the origins of this dish. It may have begun with the Basque (or migrating Asian Indians), moved south and east with migration and those who "passed through" and picked up more vegetables along the way. Alternatively, the dish sprang up independently nearly everywhere. Mediterranean countries have their own versions, just as Eastern European and former USSR nations have their own differing versions of Ukrainian Easter Egg dyes and design (pisanky, pisanki, and other spellings).
Other Versions Of The Dish
Food critics and travelers around the Mediterranean say often that any dish prepared by stewing vegetables in olive oil is called ratatouille, traditions for the dish having been discarded.
Northern Spain, primarily the Catalans, enjoy a long history of the dish samfaina and feel that it spread into the South of France to become ratatouille. It is much like a ratatouille with chunks of fish added. Compared to ratatouille, the samfaina recipes I have seen contain more tomatoes, no mushrooms, and of course, the fish, meat or fowl.
Nice, France Is Near Monaco
The series of Michael Bond mystery novels staring the policeman turned gourmet food critic Monsieur Pampelmousse contains numerous references to French cooking and especially to the South of France and its culinary traditions of stewed vegetables. That fits with the Nice origins theory.
Pampelmousse misses his mama's ratatouille and can find none as good in any of the gourmet restaurants he visits to critique. This is a compliment for Provencal culinary traditions.
The Frugal Gourmet, Jeff Smith, long ago taught a ratatouille recipe and cooking techniques from the Basque Country after he interviewed ethnic cooks in America who all had roots in Europe. This is a good recipe, but thicker than the Nice tradition.
I hear that French chefs of Provence feel that any deviation from the vegetables in their national recipe of ratatouille nicoise ("tossed together vegetables from Nice") is not ratatouille. Their vegetables include only five: eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, red and green bell peppers, and yellow onions. The White House Chef Francois Rysavy had his own recipe for ratatouille, however, in the 1950s and 1960s. It included additional ingredients.
Over the course of several summers I was able to learn to grow, harvest, cook and can a variety of vegetables. Two of my favorite results were zucchini pickles and ratatouille. Before learning to garden, I'd never heard of ratatouille!
Considering appearance and form, ratatouille vegetables can be cooked in number of ways:
- Cooked with ingredients of either summer or winter vegetables;
- Cooked with added meats: beef, lamb, turkey or pork sausage, or chicken;
- Cooked separately and added together in a neat arrangement in a serving dish;
- Cooked together in a pot or deep skillet as a stew; and
- Cooked and canned in glass jars.
Serving ideas are abundant as well:
- Present in a bowl with warm French bread.
- Serve over your favorite pasta, especially whole wheat pasta.
- Served with slices of polenta.
- Serve on a plate with meat and/or boiled potatoes.
- Served with baked eggs on top.
- Baked into a large tart.
The Winter Ratatouille pictured above includes the vegetables Brussels sprouts, Jerusalem artichoke (sunchoke), parsnip, and rutabaga. Yellow onions and garlic may be added. This recipe is closer to the Basque style than to other recipes for ratatouille.
Unusual Vegetables In Ratatouille
The Jerusalem artichoke is also called a Canada potato, earth-apple, girasole, or sunflower artichoke. The Ohio State Extension Service has found that the French explorer Champlain found this vegetable growing in Cape Cod around 1605, tended by Indigenous Peoples.
Lewis and Clark also used them for food on their journey to the West Coast. The food source made its way to Europe in 1612. The vegetable grows east of the Mississippi river, but not usually north of Ohio.
The plant looks a lot like a sunflower and can grow to become 12 feet tall. The vegetable is a tuber growing at the end of rhizomes in the ground and they look like bumpy longish potatoes. Pigs like them a lot and often dig them up to eat. However, a single plant can make 200 of them. In fact, the plant can become a weed.
Summer Ratatouille Cooking Time
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- 1 Medium Eggplant, skin on, Cut to 1" cubes
- 2 Medium Zucchini, sliced medium, Older, larger zucchini lose flavor.
- 2 Medium yellow Onions, coarse chopped
- 3 Large red Tomatoes, Chopped to large pieces
- 1 Green Bell Pepper, Seeded and cut to chunks
- 1 Red Bell Pepper, Seeded and cut to chunks
- 1 Medium hot red pepper, seeded and chopped
- 2 Cloves Garlic, Peeled and mashed slighly
- OIive Oil
- White pepper, to taste, and a dash of Kosher Salt
- 1/2 Cup Fresh Basil, crushed
- 1 tsp Coriander
Instructions for Summer Ratatouille
Using a large skillet and a large pot, cook vegetables in batches as listed:
- In the skillet with a little olive oil, sauté the eggplant cubes with the red hot pepper. Place sauted eggplant into the pot over low heat and a little more olive oil.
- Sauté zucchini slices and add to the pot.
- Sauté red and green pepper chunks briefly and add to the pot.
- Add chopped onion to the pot, along with the rest of the spices and herbs..
- Cover and cook for 30 minutes on Medium-High heat. If you would like a thinner soup, add a cup or two of tomato juice. Taste after 30 minutes and re-season, if needed.
- Serve in any way listed above under Serving Ideas. Add fresh basil leaves to the top of the completed dish.
- Leftovers will meld flavors overnight for another delicious meal or side dish.
© 2012 Patty Inglish MS