I read an article recently that claimed that eating healthy for Americans is all about cutting things out, while eating healthy for French people is more about adding things in. Americans, the article contended, tend to consume too much junk, whereas French people tend to subside entirely on coffee and cigarettes and need to learn that healthy fats are actually good for them.
I think this is probably true for a certain subset of the population in France, especially a certain generation, but there’s a whole other generation that eats healthfully almost automatically, just by virtue of the fact that they eat seasonally.
Now I’m not saying they eat perfectly. I find that French people don’t really think about their plates the way that Americans do, so I often see meals (even weeks’ worth of meals) without a green vegetable. My in-laws regularly serve some sort of potato as the “vegetable” of the meal, which here seems to mean more “side dish” than “healthy thing.”
But there are some vegetables that appear regularly on French plates, and ratatouille is one of them.
My friend Kristen, who started the Kale Project, found that when she was trying to persuade French people to eat America’s favorite super-vegetable, hyping its health benefits did absolutely nothing to convince them… but hyping its historical presence in France and status as a légume oublié or “forgotten vegetable” did. Eating something just for the sake of it being healthy doesn’t really interest the French, but eating something because it’s traditional, because it’s the season, because of its cultural importance… well, that means something.
My little sister has been asking me when ratatouille season is pretty much since she got here in January. While it’s a stewed dish, simmered on the stovetop for an hour or more, it’s also filled with summer produce, featuring eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, and peppers, which can make it hard to wrap your head around if you associate hot food with cold weather.
When we finally saw French-grown zucchini at our local market last week, we made our first ratatouille of the season.
According to tradition, vegetables should be added to a ratatouille in alphabetical order… in French. You could break out your dictionary for this, but I’ll help you out: aubergine (eggplant), then courgette (zucchini), then poivron (pepper), and finally tomatoe (tomato).
(The fact that none of those vegetables is actually a vegetable is truism best kept to oneself, I think).
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, thinly sliced
2 small eggplant, diced
2 zucchini, diced
2 red bell peppers, thinly sliced widthwise (personal preference)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pinch red pepper flakes (optional)
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
salt and pepper, to taste
2 teaspoons herbes de Provence (optional)
10 leaves basil, chiffonade
Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a cast-iron or enameled pot over medium heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt, and cook until slightly browned, about 10 minutes. Push to the edges of the pot.
Add another tablespoon of olive oil, and add the eggplant. Cook until slightly browned, about 10 minutes. Mix with the onion and push to the edges of the pot. Repeat with the zucchini, followed by the red bell peppers.
When the peppers are browned, push to the edges of the pot and add the garlic and red pepper flakes, if using. Cook until fragrant (about one minute), then add the juice from the canned tomatoes. Add the tomatoes one by one, crushing them with your hands as you do so, and season with salt and pepper. Stir to bring up the fond.
Cook, uncovered, until the liquid has reduced and the texture is jammy, about an hour. Stir in the herbes de Provence, if using, and allow to cool for about 15 minutes before serving.
Add the basil just before serving.