Classic Cookbooks: Elizabeth David's Ratatouille

One of my guilty secrets as a food person and a word person is that I have never fallen for Elizabeth David. When Summer Cooking and A Book of Mediterranean Food were reissued by NYRB Classics in 2002, I bought them eagerly, expecting to be transported and inspired. Instead I was a little bored by the prose and much confused by the recipes, which assume a basic understanding of cookery I had not yet attained. I felt like a philistine.

But everyone else is enraptured by David, who as a young woman left her posh home to become an actress, took up with a married man with whom she traveled all over the Mediterranean, and worked abroad for the United Kingdom's Ministry of Information during World War II. After the war she introduced England to the frank foods of southern climates and became (inevitable phrase) "the foremost food writer of her day."

I can't help but find her story fascinating, and so recently I dove back into Summer Cooking, originally published in 1955 (when such Mediterranean necessities as olive oil, zucchini, and pasta were hard to come by in England; David suggested looking for olive oil at the pharmacy). Perhaps, I thought, if I start cooking from it, I'll be giving it the proper sort of attention and I'll find what I've been missing. Ratatouille seemed like a good first step.

Although many say the components of ratatouille must be cooked separately so they retain their integrity and individual tastes, this advice has always struck me as too fussy by half. I was pleased to see that David's ratatouille, which is meant to be served cold, is a one-pot affair. It's yummy, too. Maybe I'm coming around.

About the author: Robin Bellinger recently escaped a career in book publishing, which was cutting into her cooking time. Now she's a freelance editor and can bake bread on Tuesday afternoon if she feels like it. She lives in Midtown Manhattan with her husband and blogs about cooking and crafting at home*economics.

Ratatouille en Salade

- very generously serves 4 as a side dish or 8 as part of an hors d'oeuvre -
Adapted from Summer Cooking.

Classic Cookbooks: Elizabeth David's Ratatouille

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About This Recipe

Ingredients

  • 2 onions
  • Olive oil
  • 2 eggplants (I used about 1 1/2 pounds eggplant)
  • 2 large red bell peppers
  • 4 ripe tomatoes
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • A dozen coriander seeds
  • Parsley or basil

Procedures

  1. 1

    Chop the onions fairly small and put them to stew in a sauté pan or deep frying pan in half a tumbler of olive oil (I guessed 1/2 cup and was happy with the results). Meanwhile, cut the eggplants, leaving on their skins, into 1/2-inch squares and put them, sprinkled with coarse salt, into a colander, so that some of the water drains away from them.

  2. 2

    When the onions have cooked about 10 minutes and are beginning to get soft (but not fried), add the eggplants, and then the peppers, also cut into small pieces. Cover the pan and let them simmer for 30 to 40 minutes. Now add the chopped tomatoes, the garlic, and the coriander seeds. Continue cooking until the tomatoes have melted (I called them melted at 10 to 15 minutes). Should the oil dry up, add a little more, remembering that the liquid from the tomatoes will also make the ratatouille more liquid, and the final result must not be too mushy.

  3. 3

    When cold, garnish it with chopped parsley or basil. Drain off any excess oil before serving.

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