My families Thanksgiving is not a quiet, laid back affair,not even before I had children. I have often thought it would be fun to track the routes of the different conversations around the table. The political debates would pass the literary conversations on their way to someone about to tell a loud joke, often about someone at the table. The funny thing about the loud political debates is we all really agree, we just like to declare that loudly as if we have another person to convince.
We are quite the international bunch. My aunt fled her home in Nazi germany as a young child, I imported my husband from England, my cousin-in-law is from Israel and my sister-in-law is from India. This year however for the first time since Lewis and I began dating we are all sitting down to the table as American citizens. That does not mean however that all our traditional Thanksgiving dishes can be found on tables across the country. Like my family our meal contains quirks and idiosyncrasies all our own. The quirks of my family and the whole meal might be part of why it is my favorite holiday. Even before the September 11 Naturalization proceeding, when Lewis was sworn in as a citizen, it has been his favorite as well.
This is the first year I have taken on my families iconic Thanksgiving's ratatouille. I don't know the history of how it became a Thanksgiving tradition for us, however it really blends beautifully with the rest of the meal. As a suitable vegetarian main course it enables us to let our menu remain the same even though my brothers family are mostly vegetarians, except now we use vegetarian stock in the stuffing. Noah, my brother, calls himself, a vegetarian with out rules. For those who have never encountered that phrase before, it means he eats meat whenever he wants. His wife and my nieces are strict vegetarians, horrified at Noah's version of vegetarianism.
Ratatouille is one of those dishes that is more about technique then a prescription you must follow exactly. My aunts version is from a yellowed and ancient clipping from the New York Times, mine is far looser in form, a dish I make in the summer with the vegetables I have on hand. For me the requirements that allow me to call it ratatouille are eggplant, zucchini, garlic and tomatoes, the rest are just options and change with my mood. I prefer to make it with sweet peppers as well but I have been known to do without. The other vegetables I choose to add often have more to do with what I have in my fridge, and how much I was hoping to make. This summer I was trying to cobble together a vegetable for dinner from the bits and bobs in my vegetable drawers. I added chard stems midway through sautéing the onions and I was very happy with the outcome. This time I added finely diced parsnip, its sweetness will help with the lower quality of the peppers this time of year.
The beautiful thing about serving this at Thanksgiving is it tastes better if it is made at least the day before serving, because it gives the flavors a chance to blend and marry. Leftovers are never a problem because they are so versatile. Amongst my favorites is an omelette with sharp cheddar cheese and warm ratatouille. It also makes a fine filling for a pita, sauce for pizza or lasagna, sauce for fish...
When I make it I always cut up the eggplant ahead, place the peices in a colander with a sprinkling of kosher salt and allow to sit. This step makes the eggplant collapse slightly so it does not absorb oil into its air pockets like a sponge. In addition it draws out some of the vegetables moisture and with it the bitterness. Personally I love eggplant whether or not this step is included but Lewis does not, so I salt it. In the summer I often just salt it for the length of time it takes me to prep the other ingredients, however the eggplant I cook with in the summer is less bitter then its winter supermarket equivalent.
Ratatouille (to be used as a guide, no need to slavishly follow)
1 medium - large eggplant peeled in stripes so that some of the peel remains, cut into 1 inch cubes
1 large onion diced (1 cup)
Extra virgin olive oil as needed (I use a lot, olive oil is healthy and really makes this dish)
2 Tbsp garlic minced
3 medium zucchini (courgettes) sliced in half lengthwise and then sliced 1/4 - 1/2 inch thick
2 - 3 small red, yellow or orange peppers, or 1 large
4 cups tomatoes canned in own juice, or 1 large can (or when in season fresh tomatoes peeled and roughly chopped)
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh parsnip
1 medium fresh or dried bay leaf
1 tsp fresh thyme chopped
Kosher salt to taste plus 1 Tbsp for salting the eggplant
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
(other optional ingredients include: carrots, chard stems, herbs de provence, fresh basil, rosemary, fresh fennel)
Place the eggplant in a colander in the sink and sprinkle generously with kosher salt I used 1 Tbsp). Allow to drain for 1 hour or while you prep the other ingredients. When done the eggplant should have brown liquid on it and some should have drained away. (In the summer I almost never give them a whole hour). Rinse the eggplant thoroughly with water to wash off the salt and either pat dry in paper towels or a cloth towel or you can squeeze it out with your hands. Squeezing it will give you a firmer texture.
While the eggplant is being salted add extra virgin olive oil to a preheated saute pan and add the onions and a pinch of salt. Cook the onions, stirring occasionally, over a low flame until pale brown and caramelized. Add 1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil to a medium dutch oven (I believe mine was 5 quarts) and add the tomatoes, cook the tomatoes over medium heat while the onions are cooking. Once the onions are almost cooked add the garlic and saute for a minute before adding to the tomatoes along with the bay leaf and the fresh thyme. Heat the saute pan again and add more olive oil and saute the eggplant until browned. Add the eggplant to the tomatoes along with kosher salt and pepper to taste.
Continue to saute the vegetables in olive oil and then adding them to the tomatoes and other vegetables. If the ratatouille begins to get to dry add some water. Once all the vegetables are sauteed cook the ratatouille for a few minutes and then taste and adjust the seasoning. Either serve right away or refrigerate and reheat before serving.