"Ratatouille," the new animated movie in which Remy the rat becomes a chef with the help of his friend Linguini, has everyone talking about the dish that won the critic's heart.
Before the movie, ratatouille was well enough known. It's a specialty in Provence, in the south of France. This vegetable stew is made with tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, and onions, and actually quite common all around the Mediterranean. In Greece, a similar dish is called briami, it's escalivada in Catalonia, salada mishwiyya in Tunisia, guvec or turlu in Turkey. All the essentials come into season at once, which is why so many cultures celebrate the dish. Ratatouille brings them together in a chunky rustic stew, or, as in the film, a fancier presentation of fanned out vegetables.
In the movie, little chef Remy lives in the French countryside and would rather pilfer saffron from people's kitchens than eat garbage with the rest of his family. He has such a sensitive nose that he serves as the poison sniffer for the rest of the clan, picking out safe morsels they happen upon. When he lands in Paris at the restaurant of his idol, Gusteau, a recently deceased chef – and author of the book "Anyone Can Cook" – Remy befriends Linguini, who isn't very talented.
Every detail in the film is right on, from the enameled cast-iron ranges to the cheese cart with its ash-covered tomes of goat cheese. Chefs zest lemons with rasp graters, squirt beads of sauce from plastic squeeze bottles, hone their knives on sharpening steels, flip and flambe in copper pots, and pad around in leather clogs.
When it's time to cook for the frightening writer Anton Ego, the most powerful food critic in Paris (a grim diner, who once took away Gusteau's fifth star), Linguini enlists Remy's help. The critic takes one bite of Remy's elevated ratatouille and is immediately flooded with memories of childhood. The man who once said, "If I don't love it, I don't swallow it," finally remembers what brought him to his critic's work in the first place.
The film makes everyone want to go into the kitchen and turn out an equally impressive ratatouille. And while Remy's extravagant dish may be too cumbersome at home, the classic is not.
The easiest route to a homespun ratatouille is to simmer onions, garlic, tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, and peppers into a rough stew. This works fine, but as with many stews, the individual textures of the ingredients are lost.
In his book, "Lulu's Provencal Table," the late cookbook writer and Provence resident Richard Olney gives a recipe for Lulu Peyraud's ratatouille. With all due respect to Remy, Lulu's dish takes this ordinary stew to new heights. She flavors the pot with bell peppers grilled over wood embers, and studs it with black olives, and the diced crisp heart of a head of celery – all worthy additions. The finished dish can be served warm with grilled fish or roasted meats, or at room temperature as a main course with grilled crusty bread rubbed with garlic.
For a more elegant presentation, layer thinly sliced zucchini, summer squash, and tomatoes with olive oil and aromatic herbs and roast them in a hot oven.
Either makes a perfect mid-summer meal. If you're lucky, you, too, will recall eating ratatouille in the sunny Provencal countryside when the lavender was in bloom.
© 2007 The Boston Globe