It is one of those dishes that is familiar to anyone who grew up anywhere within the Mediterannean or somewhere within the region surrounding North Africa and Turkey. It’s ingredients are so basic: a melange of eggplant, squash, and zucchini cooked in a coulis (or sofrito or refogado or sofregit depending on where you are) of tomatoes, onions, garlic, and a bouquet of herbs. Imam bayildi, the version served in the Islamic nations of the region, is said to be so fragrant that a holy man actually swooned ecstatically after taking a whiff of it. Xamfaina, the version served in Basque Territory, is a tangy dish served in the place of salad during the winter months but also happens to be good cold. Strangely enough, possibly because of the Spanish influence on local cuisine, the Ilocanos of the Northern Philippines have a similar concoction known as pinakbet: not as tomatoey-rich as its European cousins, but nevertheless a stew that calls for vegetables straight out of one’s home garden. To the rest of the world, it is best known as that tangy, richly-flavored vegetable stew of the French provinces of Nice and Provence: ratatouille.
Before the skewed creative guys from Disney used the name as the title for a flick about a rat with culinary ambitions, the name called to mind a chunky stew of fresh vegetables cooked with a slightly caramelized tomato sauce and olives. The original dish serves two purposes: you could either eat it as a side dish with roast meats or enjoy it on its own as a vegetarian meal, making sure to sop up the scrumptious sauce with a sliced baguette or a pilaf.
Sometimes, a ratatouille can be made with julienned or diced rather than chunked ingredients. Cooked this way, it serves as a filling for omelets, savory crepes, and – as shown here – pies.
I recently found this at Starbucks where it was being sold as a Country Vegetable Pie. Seriously: with a name like that, one would expect to get a stodgy English-style number where mushrooms and/or potatoes cooked in a thick cheese sauce would be stuffed into a shortcrust pastry pretty much in the same manner as, say, a Cornish pasty.
Instead, what I got was a largish puff pastry square well stuffed with vegetables that were soft yet not mushy and a sharp, slightly spicy tomato sauce with just the barest hint of sweetness. It is a study of contrasts, this pie: the buttery flavor of the pastry tempering the sharpness of the sauce, the al dente vegetables working harmoniously with the crunchy-crisp crust.. I’ve already had this twice, both warmed up and cold out of the display case; the temperature doesn’t seem to affect the quality as it has remained consistently good. Plus, unlike most filled baked goods I’ve had at Starbucks over the years, they apparently haven’t scrimped on the filling for this one.
Weird as it sounds, I actually prefer this for breakfast rather than at any other meal. For one thing, it satisfies my veggie cravings on days when I want my veg but can’t seem to work an appetite up for salad. For another, this goes a real treat with a hot, spicy, creamy mug of chai.