The Secret Ingredient You Didn’t Know Ratatouille Needed

The Secret Ingredient You Didn’t Know Ratatouille Needed

For Mother’s Day this year, I decided that brunch just wouldn’t cut it. No: This year, my mama deserved something extra-special. Since last August, she hasn’t just been wearing her Mom hat, but also a very large, intricate, wedding planner hat. Imagine a traditional British fascinator. To help me plan my wedding, she researched everything from dresses to peony season to venues that hold a small Jewish army in upstate New York (turns out, not many).

I thought for a few minutes, and quickly landed on a Parisian inspired dinner party. Is Melanie French? No, not technically, but she does believe that she was French in a past life. She loves baguettes and berets and Bordeaux and Chanel a bit more than your average lady. When planning the menu, I wanted to keep things delicious and easy. If you’ve seen this insightful article, you’ll know that Parisians don’t waste time on trying to impress people, they just keep things simple.

The first entrée I made was a creamy and tangy chicken a la moutarde. For my second main, I chose ratatouille, because we had one vegan in attendance. Ratatouille also happens to be dairy and gluten-free, so keep this one in your back pocket when entertaining a crowd with diverse eating habits. Allergen-friendliness aside, ratatouille feels rustic, and reminds me of a wonderful summer I spent studying French in the Côte d'Azur when I was 17 (going on 27), sipping cheap rosé and eating cheese by the pound. In pleasing mom, I thought this dish might also bring me down the lazy river of nostalgia for a minute or two.

While ratatouille doesn’t really need a recipe, I wanted to use one, since I’d be feeding a lot of guests. I consulted one of my favorite columns, Genius Recipes and landed on a ratatouille recipe by Alice Waters. I followed the steps exactly, sauteing eggplant alone, intricately wrapping herbs in butcher’s twine, letting everyone relax in the pan together for a few minutes. When my work was done, I tasted and let the flavors linger on my tongue. I tasted again. Delicious, bien sûr, but something was missing for me. I added a bit of salt, and tried the ratatouille again. Still, I was craving that je ne sais qoui. Had I done something wrong? After all, this was a recipe by the food legend Alice Waters. Certainly her work needed no edits. I decided to blame my recent trip to Japan, where I had eaten so many salty, umami flavors; perhaps my tastebuds were still craving the sodium of pork in tonkatsu ramen, the sushi consistently dipped and dunked into soy or ponzu or other dark, wheaty sauces. I thought about these flavors and decided to peer into my fridge. What could I add to the ratatouille that would not mask it’s subtle, bright flavors, but instead, hide in the background, rooting for the Alice Water recipe but not overshadowing it?

I stared into the neon-lit side door. Ketchup? Too sweet. Sriracha? Too spicy. Mustard? Nope. Tamarind Chutney? Nah. How did that even end up here? I think I bought this chutney when I went to explore Kalustyan’s, an expansive South Asian grocery shop in NYC. I had used it only once before, when I wanted to amp up the flavor simple fried eggplant slices. Now that my memory was jogged, I recalled how pungent, sour, and simply marvelous it made the creamy vegetable taste. Since Ratatouille is also based on eggplant, I decided to give it a try. 

A tangent: If you’ve never tried it, tamarind chutney is traditional in many South Asian recipes. On its own, tamarind is a pod-shaped tropical fruit that is technically classified as a legume. It’s flavor is a harmony of sweet and sour, like nature’s interpretation of Sour Patch Kids. To make tamarind chutney, you dilute tamarind paste with water, and spices such as cumin, ginger, and black pepper. You cook the whole mixture together until it becomes thick and syrupy. Once it’s ready, it can be used the way any sauce would.

I added a few spoonfuls to my pot of still-warm-ratatouille and then I tasted: exactly what I was hoping for. The tamarind chutney acted in my ratatouille the way that nutmeg does in a traditional béchamel sauce, becoming the masked flavor you can’t exactly pinpoint. It brought out many characteristics that I didn’t catch in the individual vegetables earlier: the caramelization of the eggplant, the freshness of the zucchini, the woodsy scent of the thyme. By taking a risk, I was able to turn a very classic dish into something of my own. The ratatouille with tamarind chutney was a smashing success at dinner, and everyone requested seconds. We scraped our bowls with baguettes as trusty assistants, finished the last drops of Bordeaux. Most importantly, my mother was tres content.

ratatouille with a twist
2 Japanese eggplant, cubed
olive oil
2 small Vidalia onions, diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
pinch of chili flakes
bunch of fresh basil, chopped roughly
2 bell peppers, cubed
2 zucchini or squash, cubed
3 ripe tomatoes, diced
salt + pepper
2-3 tablespoons tamarind chutney

directions:
toss eggplant with salt in a colander and let it sit for 30 minutes. Then pour it out into a large bowl lined with paper towels. press and squeeze all the liquid out of the eggplant. 
Add a generous glug of olive oil to a large pan and sauté eggplant until deeply golden. When done, remove and set aside.
Add more oil, then sauté onions on a medium heat until translucent. Add garlic, chili flakes, and half of the basil. Add a generous pinch of salt.
Add peppers + squash, cooking for 10 minutes until they start to brown. Add tomatoes, and another glug of oil. Taste for salt and add pepper. Add more salt if necessary. 
Cook this mixture for 10 minutes, then add back eggplant and diluted tamarind chutney. Toss and taste. Add more salt/spice if your ratatouille needs more of a kick. Add more tamarind chutney if you want it to be more pungent. Cook for another 8-10 minutes. 
Top with remaining basil leaves, and serve warm (preferably with a nice crusty bread, and a glass of red!)

P.S: This is an amazing dish to make ahead as it only gets better as it sits! 

What are your thoughts on riffing off the traditional? Are you a purist? Are you willing to try something new and wild? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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