I always took pride in the fact of my indifference to vegetables. If it didn’t have parents, I didn’t want to eat it. My hostillity to the whole plant kingdom was famous. But getting old and fat has weakened my resolve. And the sudden appearance, so sudden and unexpected, of some intensely gratifying vegetable dishes, has also eased my process of gender transformation.
One person I have to thank for this is my friend Paul Denamiel. Paul is one of the last persons I would have ever expected to help me transition into a part-time plant eater. For one thing, Paul is the chef of Le Rivage, an old-school French restaurant where I have eaten often, and heartily, and never on salad. A typical Le Rivage meal might involve lamb chops, steak au poirve, country pate, and – the closest thing to a vegetable – a rich, buttery quiche loaded up with bacon. When Paul opened Little Prince, a stylish French bistro in SoHo, I expected to go there and eat more, even better meat dishes. And so I did. I ate an amazing French onion soup burger, a veritiable orgy of animal fats braced by mustard, various steaks and chops; a very fine, very thick piece of grilled swordfish; and then, almost in passing, I tried Paul’s ratatouille.
Everyone remembers the scene, in Disney’s Ratatouille, where the fearsome restaurant critic Anton Ego tries the titular dish and immediately flashes back to his long-forgotten youth. This didn’t happen to me. For all I can remember, this might have been the third one I ever ate. But it was intense, gratifying, rich, and delivered the kind of concentrated flavor that I associated with the best parts o the meats I love: the crescent edge of pork chops, say, or the salty, unctous skins of slow-roasted plump chickens. This ramiken, with its cascading discs of tomato, zuccchini, and eggplant, should have been bland, lame, effeimintate, and uninteresting. But somehow it had an enormous umami oomph, and the rich mouthfeel I tend to associate with butter. Did it have butter? Was in somehow confited in beef tallow? Why was this so good?
Paul laughed at me. “You think all I can cook is steak, Oz? Just because that’s all you eat doesn’t meat that’s all I can make.” He at this point walked me through what was so good about this dish, which I am endeavoring, without much success, to make at home. For one thing, the vegetables are done to the exact point of tenderness at which they become soft, but not mushy; there’s an al dente quality to them that is so different from the repulsive, mushy character of so many eggplant dishes. And then, in opposoting to standard ratatouille practice, Paul omits the onions and peppers, which lightens it up. The biggest thing, I would have to say, is the intensity of the oven-dried tomatoes and tomato concasse which underlay the whole dish, and which gives it that amazing, almost meat-like richness and intensity. Anyway, I was able to prevail on Chef Paul for the recipe, which I present to you unedited. It’s a long one, and a lot of work, but you can eat this as a main dish for a light dinner. (You may want to skip the egg, though.)
Executive Chef Paul Denamiel of Le Rivage and Little Prince
6 to 8 servings
For the Tomato Concasse:
4 large plum tomatoes
1 shallot cut into a small dice
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 TBS olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
For the Vegetables:
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 lb Japanese eggplant, cut into 1/4 inch thick rounds
4 medium zucchini (2 lb) cut into 1/4 inch thick rounds
4 medium yellow squash (2 lb) cut into 1/4 inch thick rounds
4 large large plum tomatoes cut into 1/4 inch thick rounds and oven dried
1 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Salt and black pepper to taste
For the Oven Dried Tomatoes
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
On a cookie sheet lined with parchment, drizzle olive oil and then place a single layer of tomato rounds on parchment. Drizzle the top of tomatoes with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
Place tomatoes in oven for 30 to 40 minutes or until moisture is evaporated and tomatoes are a deeper red color.
For the Tomato Concasse
Cut an X in bottom of each tomato with a sharp paring knife and blanch together in a 4-quart pot of boiling water 1 minute. Remove tomatoes from boiling water with a slotted spoon and then transfer them to an ice water bath. Rest them for 1 minute.
Remove tomatoes from the ice water bath, place on a cutting board and with a pairing knife peel off skin, beginning from scored end.
Cut tomatoes in half, remove and discard seeds. Coarsely chop tomatoes and set aside.
In a medium sauce pot over medium heat, sweat the shallots with 2 TBS olive oil. Make sure that shallots do not brown or burn as this will make the tomato concasse bitter. Add the tomatoes and the sprigs of fresh thyme to the shallot. Simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes become soft and most of the moisture is evaporated. This may take about 20 minutes.
For the Vegetables
While sauce is simmering, toss eggplant with 1/2 teaspoon salt in a large colander and let stand in sink 30 minutes. After 30 minutes place the pieces of eggplant rounds on paper towels one layer at a time. Place another paper towel on top of the eggplant rounds and lightly press them down. This removes the excess water and bitterness.
Place the zucchini rounds, squash rounds, oven dried plum tomatoes rounds and tomato concasse in individual bowls to be ready for assembly. Drizzle olive oil over each of the vegetable rounds and toss with chopped parsley, salt and pepper.
Using olive oil, lightly oil the bottom of a medium round ceramic casserole pan. You can use cast iron or glass as well.
Spread the tomato concasse on the bottom on the casserole pan evenly. Starting on the outer rim, alternately, layer each of the vegetable rounds. As you layer them in the casserole pan make sure they are close and tight together, nicely fanning them around the pan.
When casserole pan is completely full, drizzle a little more olive oil on top and bake in a 350 degree oven for 30 to 40 minutes or until vegetables are tender.
Cut a nice slice and place on a 6 inch round plate and serve with a soft poached egg on top; garnish with fresh chopped parsley.