Saturday, March 24, 2012

Ratatouille Soup


Ratatouille is an oddly named food and not always visually appealing, but if you can get past those two strikes, it’s delicious.  

I remember the first time I had ratatouille – my future stepfather was taking my mom, sister, and me out to lunch.  He took us to a fancy French restaurant with an atrium full of live plants.  I was being a recalcitrant teenager and generally unhappy that my mom was remarrying, so I didn't talk much over lunch, but I did like that my future stepfather had good taste in restaurants. 

At that age, when the cost of my meal still came out of someone else’s pocket, I was very adventurous in my menu choices.  I typically ordered things I’d never heard of or, at the very least, had never tasted.   

“Ratatouille” met both criteria. 

My meal came in my own personal gratin dish, something I’d never seen before at TGI Fridays or the restaurants our family typically visited.   I felt classier, treated.  I remember being a little surprised by all of the dark vegetable chunks, but I liked the glossy sheen of what was probably an expensive olive oil.  It tasted rich, and I ate every bite.

Years later, once I got my own apartment, I learned to make ratatouille.  I made it for several years and enjoyed it with my roommate, who wasn't concerned about its name or appearance.  Then I basically unlearned how to make ratatouille.  My husband isn’t excited about eggplant, and although I cook some things just for myself, a huge pot of ratatouille just wasn’t going to happen. 

So imagine my delight when I found a recipe for “Ratatouille Soup” in this week’s featured cookbook is The Union Square Café Cookbook (1994).  You basically make a small pot of ratatouille, puree it in your blender, and ladle it into bowls.  Lots of flavor, but as you can see in the picture above, no visible eggplant. 

Adapting the Recipe
There’s actually no gluten or dairy in the original recipe, but I did make four adaptations.  First change:  canned tomatoes.  The original recipe called for 2 pounds of fresh tomatoes, noting how amazing this soup is in the summer.  Since it is March, and I wasn’t thrilled by the unnaturally firm tomatoes in the produce section, I used canned tomatoes instead.  Second change:  I substituted dried thyme for the fresh.  Third change:  I added a pinch of sugar to reduce the acidity of the tomatoes.  And the last change was that I broiled the eggplant instead of sautéing it because I love the smoky, soul-southing flavor of broiled eggplant.   

You can easily make this recipe vegan by using vegetable broth.  


Verdict?
Thick and delicious, this is basically a rich, complex tomato soup.  I’ll admit that I like the Smoky Tomato Basil Soup from last month slightly better – that soup has a tanginess that I find addictive – but this Ratatouille Soup is very smooth and filling.   As with many soups, I liked it even better the next day when the flavors had blended and settled. 

And my husband?  I called it “French Vegetable Soup,” and he ate it happily for dinner.  His only comments were “The soup is really good,” and “Are you sure it doesn’t have dairy in it?” but he didn’t ask about the eggplant.  I’ll tell him at some point, but as long as we both feel treated, why get hung up on a name?
Two creamy bowls of gluten-free and dairy-free ratatouille soup

Ingredients
1 small or medium eggplant
1 28 oz. can of tomatoes, whole
1 14 oz. can of tomatoes, whole
2 T. extra virgin olive oil
1/3 C. chopped onion
¾ C. chopped zucchini
¾ C. chopped red bell pepper
2 T. sliced fresh basil leaves plus some extra sliced basil leaves for garnish
½ tsp. dried thyme
2 C. vegetable or chicken broth
Pinch of cayenne
Pinch of sugar
1 tsp. kosher salt (plus more to taste)
1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Instructions
Preheat the broiler.  Spray a rimmed baking sheet with cooking spray.

Slice the eggplant in half lengthwise. Place the eggplant on the prepared baking sheet cut-side down.  Cook the eggplant under the broiler for 15-35 minutes, until the purple skin is charred a dark brown and when you poke the eggplant, it collapses.  Larger eggplants take longer to cook than smaller ones.  (For beautiful step-by-step instructions on grilling eggplant, see The Skiksa in the Kitchen).  Set the eggplant aside to cool and turn off the broiler.    

Pour the whole tomatoes into a colander and allow them to drain for a few moments.  There will still be juice inside the tomatoes, which you’ll use in the soup, but you want to pour off the excess juice. 

Using a cutting board that will allow you to capture the juice, coarsely chop each tomato into 5 or 6 pieces.  Set aside.

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large saucepan or soup pot.  Add the onion and garlic and sauté for 1 minute, stirring occasionally to ensure the garlic doesn’t brown.  Stir in the zucchini and red pepper, sautéing until softened but not browned, about 5-6 minutes.

Measure out ½ C. cooked eggplant.  (You can use the rest of the broiled eggplant to make a little baba ganoush).  

Add the eggplant, tomatoes and their juice from the cutting board, the basil, thyme, broth, and seasoning.  Bring to a boil, lower the heat to a simmer, and cover.  Cook until the vegetables are completely soft and the flavors have begun to blend, about 15 minutes. 

Using a large ladle, carefully transfer the hot soup into a blender and puree until smooth, being careful to secure the top of the blender before you turn it on.  (The pressure of hot soup can cause the top of the blender to pop off).  Serve hot or chilled with a few slivers of fresh basil as a garnish. 

Makes 7 cups of soup, serves 4-6.

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