julia child, mastering the art of french cooking, julie powell, french cuisine

No Rats Were Harmed in the Making of This Dish

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“No wonder I associate eggplant with vegetarians.  If I was a vegetarian, I’d eat it all the time too.” – Julie Powell

Happy Weekend, everyone! It is an especially happy weekend in our house – it’s Ben’s Birthday Weekend. To celebrate, we’re having a family get-together this afternoon, and then he and I will celebrate his actual birthday on Monday. I thought our weekend of celebration would be the perfect opportunity to make up for this crazy week of Julia deficiency, so I decided to tackle a few recipes last night. I was a machine of culinary productivity, I tell you, and it all began with dinner: Ratatouille (eggplant casserole). The first time I’d ever heard of this dish was when the Pixar movie of the same name came out, and even then I didn’t really know what it was. I thought it was some sort of soup or stew, both of which I like, so I figured I’d give this recipe a try.

The first roadblock was finding eggplant, the main attraction in this dish. It took me three tries before I found a store that carried any, but it was worth it – what they had was big and beautiful. Once home, I set to work – first things first, peel and slice the eggplant and some zucchini and leave them in a bowl with salt for a half-hour to draw out their moisture. While that was going on, I began prepping the rest of the ingredients: thinly sliced yellow onion; green bell peppers; mashed garlic; and peeled, seeded and juiced tomatoes.

Peeled Tomatoes - weird, huh?

The process for the tomatoes was kind of odd. I boiled them in water for 10 seconds, which loosened the skin enough for me to easily peel them. Then, after slicing them in half crosswise, I squeezed all the seeds and juice through a seive until I was left with the tomato pulp. This was sliced and set aside for later.

Once the eggplant and zucchini were finished drying out, I patted them with a towel and sauteed them to a light brown, then set them aside. In the same pan I sauteed the onions and peppers along with the garlic, then laid the sliced tomato pulp on top and seasoned with salt and pepper. I covered the pan and let everything cook for a few minutes, letting the tomatoes render their juices. I basted the vegetables with the tomoto juice from the pan and boiled a few minutes more, until there was hardly any juice left.

Tomatoes, Onions & Peppers

I set about half the tomato mixture into the bottom of a stovetop casserole dish (it was only supposed to be a third of the vegetables, but for some reason I came up a little short) and sprinkled it with a tablespoon of chopped parsley. Next came half the eggplant/zucchini on top, then the rest of the tomatoes and parsley. One more layer of eggplant/zucchini topped with the final third tomatoes (I had a few left on my cutting board, so I sauteed them quickly and added them to the top of the dish). The casserole dish was covered and sat on the stove for about 20 minutes, and I checked in every few minutes to baste the dish with its own juices. I was really surprised at this point to see how much juice there was in the bottom of the casserole. There was barely any when I had started, but the cooking process was not only bringing out the juice from the tomatoes – it was also extracting the oil all the veggies had picked up during sauteing.

Ben wasn’t home from work yet, so I took the casserole dish off the stove and began tackling my next task – Ben’s birthday cake. His special request this year is a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, but sadly, Julia Child doesn’t offer such a recipe. I found one online and got to work. The hardest part of the whole thing was grating all the carrots – 3 cups worth. I peeled them in the sink (which was now full of purple eggplant skins) and then used the finest side of my cheese grater. It seemed to work perfectly. By the time I got the cake into the oven, my hands were orange, but the batter smelled terrific!

It was at this point that I decided to start cleaning up after myself – the kitchen looked like a bomb had gone off. Julia (and my mom) always says to clean as you go, but when?? I feel like I’m constantly working when I’m in there…this is something I’ll have to improve upon. Time management in the kitchen. I focused on cleaning out the sink, as it was filling up fast – dirty dishes, carrot pieces, eggplant peelings, egg shells. What a mess! I emptied the dishwasher, loaded it with a new round of filth and then worked all the food pieces down the garbage disposal. I ran it a little at a time, and all seemed to be going well.

And then the sink began to slowly fill up with murky water.

This can't be good...

I flipped the switch for the garbage disposal, but to no avail. The water kept rising. I reached down the drain, thinking there were carrot pieces blocking the water flow – but all was clear. This couldn’t be good. Not to be deterred, I decided to leave that business for the husband of the house and get to work on my next recipe: Bouchees Parmentier au Fromage (potato cheese sticks). Julia lists these under “Luncheon Dishes”, and I thought they’d be great to have sitting around the bar area this afternoon at Ben’s party – easy to nibble while playing a game of cards or while sitting around visiting.

I peeled two potatoes (into a trash bag, rather than into the sink – see, I CAN be taught!), quartered them and boiled them on the stove until tender. I drained them and put them into the potato ricer, squeezing them out into a pan on the stove. The heat from the stove evaporated the moisture from the potatoes, and they quickly acquired a mashed potato consistency. I stirred in some flour, butter, an egg and grated Swiss cheese with some seasoning, and the mixture became a creamy batter. I scooped the batter into a pastry bag with a fluted tip…and here’s the best part…then squeezed the mixture out onto a couple of cookie sheets that were covered with my brand new SILPATS!! (Huzzah! Take THAT, ladyfingers!!) I’ve learned my lesson from that last disaster and couldn’t wait to use my new gifts. They were amazing. When I pulled the cookie sheets out of the oven, the little potato sticks were sliding around the mat – nothing like the block of cement I pulled out of the oven the last time I tried a recipe like this. Victory!

Potato Stick Batter

The potato sticks looked good, lightly browned with crispy edges and soft centers. The melted Swiss cheese smelled delicious, but we won’t know how they turned out until Ben’s party this afternoon. I’ll keep you posted on the final results!

I was about halfway through the potato recipe when Ben came home from work. There’s nothing like greeting your husband with, “Welcome home and happy birthday weekend! Now, could you take a look at the sink? The disposal’s backed up.” I could tell you all about what happened next – about how the plunger came out, and then the emergency supply of towels, and the mayhem that quickly ensued, and the near-disaster including an overflowing pipe and a series of plumbing mishaps – but trust me when I say that whole story needs to be told in its very own post. Just know that when it comes to adventures in home ownership, nobody gets outta here without singin’ the blues.

Ratatouille

Ultimately, the important thing is that we finally got to sit down and eat the Ratatouille. Unfortunately, I didn’t heed Julia’s warning (when will I learn?) and the bottom layer of the dish got a little scorched from the heat on the stove. But it didn’t matter – everything survived. And everything was really tasty! The vegetables were tender (the eggplant was especially good), and it was even better with a little extra salt and pepper (I’m always hesitant to use seasonings when I cook, but this is one recipe that really benefits from it). I was surprised by how much oil was in the dish from sauteing the vegetables. It was a little bit much for me, but I could easily eat around it. As it was, this casserole would have made a great side dish for a meat entree; I think with less oil it would have  made a better stand-alone meal.

I’ll say this for Ratatouille – I like the meal a whole heckuva lot better than the movie. Was it just me, or was that not one of Pixar’s best? Maybe it was the far-fetchedness of the plot (talking animals I can accept, but the whole puppet master twist was kind of weird), or the fact that none of the characters were very relatable, or maybe it was because I prefer Patton Oswalt in supporting roles (give me an episode of King of Queens any day!). Whatever the reason, it doesn’t matter – they won me back with UP. *dreamy sigh* But I digress.

The Movie

This meal was really easy to make – there seemed to be a lot of steps, but none of them were difficult. (Well, except that step where we had to disassemble the pipes underneath our sink, but again…we’ll tell that story another time.) If you’re looking for something different to try, if you have lots of mouths to feed and not much time to whip something up, or if you’re in need for a movie-themed party dish, I recommend giving this one a try.

Tune in tomorrow for a review on the potato sticks and carrot cake. Until then, party on!

-Jessica

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4 Responses to “No Rats Were Harmed in the Making of This Dish”

  1. Emily says:

    I keep a plunger underneath my sink (since apparently I can’t be taught). The only time I’ve ever had to have Joe disassemble the whole deal was when I thought I could shove leftover fish (bones and all) down the gargbage disposal. Spinning blades should take care of most anything, right? Congrats on a successful meal! The hamburger one looked AWESOME!

  2. Gwen Frazier says:

    I am so happy the Silpat was a hit!! They last forever and can be used so many ways!! I love eggplant too- is there a baba gannoush recipe in the book? If not I can share a good one!!

  3. Mom says:

    Two “monkey thumbs up” on the potato sticks and carrot cake. Yummmm all around!

  4. Melanie Ridings says:

    So glad you liked using the silpats, they will come in handy for lots of baking! The movie (Ratatouille) was actually very cute (Netflix) is so handy. Glad to see you’re improving your techniques and confidence – it will only increase as you spend more time in the kitchen. Relax and enjoy – its just Cooking! Bon Appetit! Love, Melanie

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