Failure and Success of Ratatouille

When I found out that I was going to have to cook an ethnic inspired dish, I was terrified! As I have stated before, I am not someone that should be allowed in a kitchen due to my non-existent cooking skills. In addition, I am someone who tends to avoid attempting anything I will most likely be unsuccessful at, which is probably why my kitchen duties have not expanded past washing the dishes after the meal. But since this was a school assignment and I take school very seriously, I was determined to put my fears aside, step out of my comfort zone, and make a French inspired dish, ratatouille.

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Photo from Food52

I knew I was going to need to enlist some help, so I called in my boyfriend, Ryan, whom, in his own mind, is a pretty good cook, but nonetheless, is definitely much better than I am. Once I had decided on a dish, the two of us planned to attempt the first recipe on a Friday night. He would clean the kitchen and I would go to the grocery store to get all of the yummy ingredients. For the first time ever, I was going to be the one in charge of the kitchen while Ryan, a broadcast and entertainment communications major, would be in charge of the camera.

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For the first recipe, it instructed me to cut up the vegetables, which turned out to be a more difficult task then expected because Ryan’s camera was in my face the whole time. Nonetheless, the first few vegetables for the ratatouille were cut and ready to be cooked. Once Ryan put his camera down, I gave him the task of watching and stirring the eggplant in the pan, while I cut up the rest of the vegetables. He decided to get a little fancy with his technique of sautéing and before I knew it part of the eggplant was all over the floor. “Oops!” he said.

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We had to cut our losses, half of the eggplant, and persist on. We continued to add the rest of the vegetables and cook until they were soft just like recipe said to do. After all the vegetables were cooked, we noticed the dish looking a little mushy, which made us a little apprehensive, at which point I knew a little improvising was necessary. I told Ryan to go get a baguette roll (we live across the street from a market) to help balance out the dish if the stew was too mushy. As we began to dig in, my assumptions were correct. All of the natural juices of the vegetables became too much when added together and the dish was more of a soup then a stew. Neither of us wanted to admit the truth, so we just kept eating it, but we definitely didn’t go back for seconds.

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After the disastrous first attempt at ratatouille, I was determined to find a better recipe that would better suit our taste buds. I knew that some form of meat, chicken or beef, would probably make the dish taste better, but that wouldn’t be true to the French ratatouille, so I started exploring other options. I came across a recipe that incorporated cheese into the vegetable mix and called for baking the vegetables instead of sautéing them, which would hopefully prevent them from being on the floor this time.

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I decided this was a good alternative and was determined to make this recipe turn out better than the last. I began cutting up all the vegetables, while Ryan was again in charge of the camera. This time, after first cooking the eggplant the recipe instructed us to then put the vegetables in layers in a Dutch oven with parmesan cheese in the middle of each vegetable layer. Then we would bake the dish in the oven where the cheese would melt onto the vegetables, creating a more savory meal. That is exactly what happened. The second recipe tasted like a hearty, home cooked meal, the way I envisioned ratatouille tasting. Ryan and I both went back for seconds this time and by the end of our meal, the Dutch oven was spotless, no trace of any ingredient remained.

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Since the first attempt was a disaster, I really didn’t even want to try a second recipe. But because of my desire to do well in school, I forced myself to pretend like the second time around was my first and not get distracted by my previous failed attempt. This turned out to be a good strategy and I was able to learn from my mistakes in the first try and apply those to my second, which is why I was so successful.

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For my momma…

Growing up, my younger sister and I didn’t eat too many home cooked meals. We were raised by a single mother, whom in order to provide for the two of us, had to work long, hard days and even nights. Because of our mother’s busy schedule, my sister and I found ourselves eating many quick meals like TV dinners and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Needless to say, neither of us were ever really taught how to cook a hearty, substantial meal. Image Even though my mom no longer has to work as much as she needed to back then, my sister and I still have had yet to develop any cooking skills whatsoever. So when I was tasked with the challenge of preparing an ethnic dish, I was quite terrified. I knew I was going to have to enlist some help and who better than my amazing boyfriend, Ryan, who was very excited to hear about this because he is always trying to get me to cook with him more. But what were we going to make? Image My love for French cuisine began at the age of seventeen when I started working at a French inspired restaurant. If you have ever worked in a restaurant before you know the best part is the discount on food, which I took every advantage of. After working at that restaurant for over five years, I can now safely say I have tried everything from a flavorful, stacked cordon bleu to the delicious wine base flavor of a coq au vin, enjoying every bite of it.

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Photo from Restaurant News

Although I often eat French cuisine, I have never attempted to make anything before because I have  this idea that every dish is going to be too complicated. After a little research I was able to find something I thought would be the perfect challenge, ratatouille. I have never been a big fan of meat and I was even vegetarian for four years, so I figured ratatouille, a dish full of all different types of vegetables, would be the perfect French inspired meal for me to attempt. Image

Photo from Beatrice Christina

This summer I will be visiting my mom and my sister often and after all the hard work my mom has put in for her two daughters, I want to give her something back. I want to learn how to make this dish, so when I see her again I can tell her to sit down and relax and let my sister and I take care of her for once by cooking her a meal. Image

But first, a little history lesson…

Its been said that France has some of the most delicious food in the whole world. So how did it get that reputation? One possible answer is because of the boom of restaurants and cooking schools that occurred during the 18th century. When the French Revolution ended, there was a backlash of individualism that emanated throughout the country’s population including many chefs who no longer had to serve the nobility and were looking for self-employment opportunities. To accomplish this, many cooks opened restaurants to generate money and provide a pleasurable dining service for people in their communities that wanted to relax after a hard days work.

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Photo from Days on the Claise

With the boom of restaurants providing a luxury dining experience, many chefs around the world wanted to travel to France to gain the best cooking knowledge. This led to the development of various cooking schools being built in the country, adding more to the popularity of French cuisine. During this time, three categories of cuisine emerged- haute cuisine, which was displayed in restaurants and upper-class homes, cuisine bourgeoisie, which the urban middle-class made, and cuisine provincial, which the country families prepared. Clearly, all of the people, no matter what their social standings were, valued amazing French cuisine.

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Photo from Le Cordon Bleu

It also helps that France is blessed with a variety of fruits and vegetables, as well as vast wide vineyards. Because of the bountiful amount of summer vegetables France has to offer, Ratatouille is an extremely popular late summer meal. Originating in the southeastern region of France in a town called Nice, Ratatouille was known as a peasant dish, most likely classified as a cuisine provincial meal. This was because of the meal’s efficient use of a plethora of vegetables that grow in the mid-summer months. This vegetable-stew caught on and grew in popularity to become a meal for all classes of people to enjoy and in all different countries.

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Photo from Babble

Many countries have their own versions of ratatouille and it is arguable on which is the exact right way to cook it. Julia Childs, who made the dish popular in America in 1960, argued that you must cook each vegetable separately and then combine everything together at the end. It is also argued on what ingredients make up the ratatouille dish, but many agree that there must at least be eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, and a variety of fresh herbs, which help bring out the flavors of the vegetables. Some versions of ratatouille are not just made with vegetables, but can also include some form of meat, mainly chicken or beef.

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Photo from Milbrant Vineyards