Cooking Class: Five species

Composed of five vegetables, ratatouille is a favorite dish for Succot.

eggplant pasta 311 (photo credit: MCT)
eggplant pasta 311
(photo credit: MCT)
For Succot, one of my favorite dishes is ratatouille, a classic of French cuisine. Composed of five vegetables – eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, sweet peppers and onions – and flavored with garlic and fresh herbs, it showcases the bounty of the season.
This specialty of the region of Provence in southern France has become popular throughout Europe and in the New World. Unlike many other celebrated French dishes, ratatouille gains its richness from healthy olive oil and not from butter or cream. This may be one of the reasons it has stood the test of time and appears on menus so often today.
The Parisian chef who taught me how to make ratatouille pointed out that the recipe is easy to remember. You use equal weights of the five main vegetables and add the other ingredients to taste. He sauteed each vegetable separately in olive oil in a frying pan. First eggplant slices, followed by zucchini pieces, pepper strips and sliced onions.
Next, he cooked chopped ripe tomatoes in a stew pan along with sauteed chopped garlic and a large bouquet garni of thyme sprigs, rosemary, bay leaves and parsley, and simmered the sauteed vegetables in this chunky tomato sauce. As a finishing touch at serving time, he scattered shredded basil leaves over the ratatouille, drizzled it with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkled salt and added several generous twists of the pepper mill. The result was absolutely delicious.
Cooks have come up with different cooking techniques to make their ratatouille lighter, faster, easier or more convenient to prepare. Joan Nathan, author of Quiches, Kugels and Couscous, gives a recipe from Helene Goldberg, who was born in southwest France. Instead of sauteing the vegetables, she bakes them.
“The secret of Helene’s ratatouille,” wrote Nathan, “is to cook the vegetables separately in the oven, intensifying their individual flavors.” In addition, “Helene seasons her version with a hot but not fiery Basque pepper called piment d’Espelette, from Espelette, a town near her native Toulouse.” She recommends hot paprika as a substitute.
In other Mediterranean countries, cooks have developed similar dishes, from Turkish turlu to Balkan givetch, by substituting or adding such vegetables as carrots, green beans, okra or potatoes and using different seasonings such as marjoram or dill.
These dishes are not always vegetarian. Givetch, for example, might have lamb, chicken or sausages simmered with the vegetables to make a heartier main course.
For Succot menus, Mediterranean Jews sometimes prepare such dishes. Moroccan Jews, wrote Martine Chiche-Yana, author of La Table Juive (The Jewish Table), serve an appetizer for Succot called zarlouk or zahlouk, which some call North Africa’s version of ratatouille.
It often is made of chopped grilled eggplant and grilled peppers mixed with onions, garlic, lemon juice, cumin and paprika.
For this dish, wrote Moroccan- born chef Zouhair Zairi in his just-published Moorish Fusion Cuisine, the eggplant can be baked, steamed or fried. His recipe for zahlouk, inspired by the way his mother and grandmother prepared the appetizer, includes tomatoes, onion and garlic. He steams and mashes the eggplant and cooks it with chopped ripe tomatoes, onions sauteed with garlic in olive oil, cumin and paprika. He finishes the dish with chopped cilantro (fresh coriander), lemon juice, salt and freshly ground pepper, and serves it garnished with black olives and accompanied by freshly made flat breads.
Another North African relative of ratatouille is tchoukchouka, which is made of tomatoes, peppers, garlic, sometimes onions and sometimes eggplant. “The beauty of this delicious recipe,” wrote Nathan, “is that it is prepared in advance and tastes even better the next day, especially helpful for the Sabbath and other Jewish holidays... It can also be used as a base for an egg or sausage dish and is great as a sauce over pasta.”
To make it, she slowly simmers the pulp of roasted eggplant and peeled diced roasted peppers with fresh tomatoes and garlic sauteed in olive oil until the mixture is thick. She seasons the stewed vegetables with salt and pepper and serves the dish sprinkled with lemon juice and chopped cilantro.
These vegetable stews are versatile in their menu roles. They can be served hot, cold or at room temperature, on their own or as a base for roasted chicken or grilled fish. For a simple meal, they are great topped with eggs baked, fried or hard boiled. You can even use ratatouille as a topping for pizza, which is fun to serve for supper in the succa.
This recipe is from Moorish Fusion Cuisine. Author Zouhair Zairi steams his eggplant, but you can bake or fry it if you prefer.
✔ 2 eggplants, peeled and cubed ✔ 2 Tbsp. olive oil ✔ 1 small yellow onion, diced ✔ 3 garlic cloves, minced ✔ 3 ripe tomatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped ✔ 1⁄2 Tbsp. ground cumin ✔ 1 tsp. paprika ✔ 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro (fresh coriander) ✔ Kosher salt to taste ✔ Freshly ground black pepper to taste ✔ Juice of 1⁄2 lemon
✔ 4 flat breads ✔ 1 cup cured black olives
Place eggplant cubes in a steamer and steam for 8 to 10 minutes or until soft. Transfer the eggplant to a cutting board and mash with a wooden spoon.
In a medium skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat, add onion and minced garlic and cook for 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, eggplant, cumin and paprika and cook over low heat for 20 to 25 minutes or until all the liquid evaporates.
Add chopped cilantro, salt and pepper and stir in the lemon juice. Serve at room temperature or chilled, with flat bread and cured black olives on the side.
RATATOUILLE PIZZA Makes 6 to 8 servings
For this ratatouille, I cook the eggplant separately before simmering it briefly with the other vegetables so they keep their form and color. It makes an attractive topping for the pizza and is also good served on its own hot or cold.
You can make the pizza dough quickly in a food processor, following the recipe, or mix it the traditional way in a bowl.
Pizza Dough:
✔ 7 grams (21⁄2 tsp.) dry yeast ✔ 1 cup plus 2 Tbsp. lukewarm water (41º to 46ºC) ✔ 3 cups all-purpose flour ✔ 11⁄2 tsp. salt ✔ 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
✔ 3 sprigs fresh thyme ✔ 2 sprigs fresh rosemary ✔ 1 bay leaf ✔ About 1⁄2 cup extra virgin olive oil ✔ 570 gr. ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped Salt and freshly ground pepper ✔ 3 large garlic cloves, minced ✔ 1 large onion, halved and thinly sliced (about 225 gr.) ✔ 2 small sweet peppers 1 red and 1 green, cut in strips about 1.25 cm. wide ✔ 225 gr. zucchini or white squash (kishuim) (3 small), cut in approximately 1-cm.slices ✔ 350 gr. (1 small) eggplant, peeled and cut in 6-mm. slices ✔ 2 Tbsp. shredded fresh basil leaves ✔ Basil leaves for garnish (optional)
Prepare the dough:
Sprinkle yeast over 1⁄3 cup water in a cup or small bowl and let stand for 10 minutes.
Stir until smooth. In food processor fitted with dough blade or metal blade, process flour and salt briefly to mix them. Add remaining water and oil to yeast mixture. With blades of processor turning, gradually pour in yeast-liquid mixture. If dough is too dry to come together, add 1 tablespoon water and process again. Process for 1 minute to knead dough.
Lightly oil a medium bowl.
Add dough, turning to coat entire surface. Cover with plastic wrap or with a lightly dampened towel. Let dough rise in a warm draft-free area about 1 hour or until doubled in volume.
For the ratatouille:
Wrap thyme, rosemary and bay leaf in a piece of cheesecloth or tie with string to make a bouquet garni. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add tomatoes, salt, pepper and bouquet garni and cook, stirring often, for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove bouquet garni. Stir in garlic.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large saute pan over low heat. Add onion and cook for 5 minutes. Add peppers and cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, for 10 minutes.
Add zucchini, reduce heat to low and cook for 5 minutes or until barely tender. Cut any large eggplant slices in half. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add half of eggplant slices, sprinkle with salt and saute about 2 minutes per side or until just tender.
Repeat with another 2 tablespoons oil and remaining eggplant slices.
Add tomato mixture and eggplant slices to zucchini mixture. Mix very gently.
Bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes to blend flavors.
Uncover, raise heat to medium- high and cook for 5 minutes or until vegetables are tender and mixture is thick.
Stir in shredded basil. Taste and adjust seasoning. Cool in pan or spread out on a tray, not in a bowl, so mixture stays dry.
Oil 2 baking sheets. Knead dough again briefly, divide it in two parts and put each on a baking sheet. With oiled hands, pat each portion of dough out in a 25-cm. round, with a rim slightly higher than the center.
Spread half of ratatouille over each round of dough, setting some of the pepper and zucchini pieces on top and leaving a border of about 1.25 cm at sides of dough. Brush edge of dough with olive oil and sprinkle a little olive oil over topping.
Preheat oven to 205ºC. Let pizzas rise for about 15 minutes.
Bake in preheated oven for 20 minutes or until dough is golden brown and firm but not hard. Serve hot, garnished with small basil leaves.
Faye Levy is the author of the Fresh from France cookbook series and 1,000 Jewish Recipes.