Friday, April 17, 2009

The Next Step: The Pasta Burner's Roasted Tomatoes with Ratatouille Concasse


"We started our evening off with iced Clos des Goisses champagne, which Paul served in the big bubbly-glass goblets that we'd bought in Biot, the local glassmaking town. The first course was 'tomates farcies a la pistouille'; tomatoes stuffed with chopped eggplant, fresh tomato pulp, basil, and garlic. A poached egg sat on top, like a queen on her throne." -- Julia Child, "My Life in France"

How many people have taken their first steps towards serious cooking because of Julia Child? How many people have read her words or watched her on their televisions? How many people saw a gawky, awkward woman who never seriously cooked until her forties, looked at the delicious food she had made, and then said to themselves, "Wait -- I could make that?" In a way, the best compliment to Ms. Child is that her contribution to home cookery cannot be quantified. In a culture increasingly fascinated by food, where chefs now regularly enjoy celebrity status, where people write and read blogs like this one, perhaps the real question is this: What part of food culture didn't she contribute to?

Indeed, however many people have been influenced by Ms. Child, as of this week, we can add one more person to their ranks.

I passed along a copy of "My Life in France" to the Pasta Burner this week, and, well, she tore through it in about 48 hours. She told me about this great dish that Ms. Child had described, with ripe tomatoes, creamy eggplant, and luxurious egg yolk, but had found herself dismayed by the lack of a recipe. All she had to go on was a scant two or three lines of description.

Now, in the matter of fairness and disclosure, I think it's only fair to admit that the Pasta Burner hasn't actually burned pasta in a long, long time. In fact, the notorious incident occurred before I met her, and frankly, the story often seems apocryphal.

You see, she's quite accomplished in the kitchen -- she can bake circles around me, and, when she puts her mind to cooking, she regularly produces delicious dishes. As I mentioned in this post, she's most comfortable when she has a recipe in front of her, and she prefers to stick to what's on paper with a catholic sense of discipline; she's informed me that this why she's an excellent baker, and why anything I stick in an oven emerges with the consistency of a hockey puck. (I think this is a debate for another time.)

Nevertheless, the dish she had read about was too tempting to pass up. She tried searching online for a reasonable facsimile, but couldn't quite find what she was looking for. She would be forced to improvise, with Julia Child looking over her shoulder. In the end, she not only approximated what she had read about; she introduced new ingredients, new flavors, and made something entirely her own. I took the photos; the cooking, the recipe, and the technique displayed is all hers.

The Pasta Burner's Roasted Tomatoes with Ratatouille Concasse
Inspired by Julia Child's "My Life in France"
Serves four people

4 large Beefsteak or other firm-walled tomatoes
1 large Eggplant
2 Tablespoons fresh Basil, chopped
1 Tablespoon fresh Thyme, chopped

1/2 cup Ricotta Cheese, with more to sprinkle on top

4 large Eggs

1/4 cup Olive Oil, plus more for garnish

Kalamata or other Olives (optional, as garnish)
Balsamic Vinegar (optional, as garnish)
Preheat your oven to 450 degrees F.

First, you'll want to prep your tomatoes. Slice the tops off, just under the green stem. You're not going to get the entire core out by doing this; that's okay.

Core out your tomatoes with a tablespoon or ice-cream scoop, saving the guts in a large mixing bowl. Toss out the very hard, green top of the core, but save everything else, seeds and all.

Place your tomatoes, top down, in a strainer or colander over the mixing bowl for no less than five minutes. You really want to make sure you get all the guts and liquid out of your tomato -- this will help with the structural integrity during the roasting process.

Meanwhile, prep your eggplant. Slice it in half, length-wise. Score the flesh with your knife, brush with olive oil, and apply a healthy dose of salt and pepper.

Put your eggplant in the oven, and roast it for about 20-30 minutes, or until spoon-tender. Check it about half-way to brush on more oil -- it will want to dry out.

Mmmm. Looks good, eh?

Since it's spoon-tender, spoon out the flesh into the bowl with the tomato guts.

Chop up and add your basil and thyme and add them to the tomato-eggplant mixure. If you want to add more, add more. If you want to add less, add less.

Using a pair of knives or other kitchen implements of your choosing, mix/chop up the tomato and eggplant into an even texture. You don't want to go too small -- this shouldn't be a puree -- but you don't want long stringy bits of eggplant either. A nice course chop is good. Add about a teaspoon of salt, a few cracks of pepper, and taste. You'll probably need to add more salt, but it's best to add it in small increments. Continue adding salt and pepper until you're happy with the flavor.

It's time for assembly! The idea here is a layered approach; ratatouille on the bottom, plain ricotta next, ratatouille again, and then more plain ricotta on top (so that it browns a bit while cooking). The Pasta Burner's tomatoes were quite large, so she was able to get away with a heaping tablespoon per layer -- you'll want to adjust your ratios depending on the size of the tomatoes you have on hand.

Place your tomatoes on a baking sheet, and carefully place them into the oven (at 450F) for twenty minutes. Meanwhile, start boiling a small pot of water.

After twenty minutes, crank up your heat to "broil" and place your tomatoes directly under the oven's broiler. DO NOT WALK AWAY FROM THE BROILER. You've worked so hard to make this delicious dish -- it would be a shame to burn it into oblivion at this point. Checking every 30 seconds, watch until the top of the ricotta juuuust starts to brown, and then take the pan out of the oven.

While they're cooling from their liquid-magma state, poach the four eggs, one for each tomato. Plate your tomatoes on the serving dishes, and drape the poached egg on top of each one. Garnish the plate with olive oil, a kiss of balsamic, and a few olives. Serve everything nice and warm.

This is a stunning presentation, the triumph of simple ingredients prepared well. One of the great things about this dish is that you don't need great August tomatoes for this; the baking process concentrates the tomato flavor of even the most anemic specimens. The sweetness of the roasted vegetables, the breeziness of the basil and thyme, the cool, clean, bright clouds of ricotta intermingling with the silken egg yolk -- this dish speaks of spring and yet manages to be comforting, a perfect dinner for these long, cool, May nights.

The Pasta Burner dove into the deep end when she made this -- by thinking intuitively about food and finding her own way, she created something bold, beautiful, and new. You know, I can't say I'm all that surprised; it was only a matter of time.

The bigger concern? I think I may have some competition, folks.

Music: Pink Martini -- "Hang On Little Tomato"


  1. I am impressed. Reverse engineering a recipe is like the toughest thing I can think of doing in a kitchen.

    The recipe looks easy enough for me to follow - which is awesome because eggplant stare at me on my walk home and ocassionally I wonder what I could do with them.

    Also -- I too bake with Catholic discipline... and my baked goods are always delicious.

  2. It's quite true -- I've been learning that severe and unrelenting attention to proportions and elements is THE key to producing excellent baked goods.

    I've been practicing a few little things, here and there; I think it's only a matter of time before I can regularly turn out a pastry recipe that's blog-worthy.

  3. I'm making this for dinner tonight. I think I'll try to shoot it, but I don't think it will be as pretty as your picture!


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