The Other French Laundry

While Susan and Towny were busily preparing their post on French laundry for The Modern Trobadors (and I mean actual dirty-clothing-going-into-water-to-get-the-stains-out laundry), I chose, instead, to muse on my favorite French Laundry. The other French Laundry. Yes, the Yountville restaurant of Thomas Keller.

I have never been there. I have tried, and tried to get reservations, and friends (thank you Mikey!) have tried for me, but to no avail. It is easier to get into NORAD! Mikey was so kind as to get me the Keller's tome, The French Laundry Cookbook, but I can assure you that my cooking his recipes will be nothing like the meal I dream of one day eating at The French Laundry.

I have made a few of the recipes from the book - the Creamy Maine Lobster Broth, the English Pea Soup with White Truffle Oil and Parmesan Crisps, his homemade pasta and I attempted his gnocchi (but went back to my tried-and-true recipe) - and plan on making more. That can be my May Day resolution - I will cook out of this book at least once a month! (There goes my diet...)

In addition to the recipes from the book, I stumbled across a few others online. Once, when our friend Robert was visiting overnight, we asked what he would like for dessert after our steaks which we would grill in the fireplace over a wood fire. He snarkily responded, "Why campfire s'mores, of course! But I want YOU to make homemade graham cracker and marshmallows... And I want really good chocolate."

Well, the chocolate was no problem - I always keep good Belgian chocolate on hand. But the crackers and marshmallows presented a challenge. With a little Internet surfing, I found the perfect recipe! Thomas Keller's homemade s'mores from The French Laundry. Robert was surprised and delighted that I actually did this. Reviews on Epicurious say, "Why bother? You can buy good graham crackers and the homemade marshmallows are the same as the store-bought ones." But I say to that, "Because I can! AND the taste is really incomparable."

But I won't be sharing that recipe with you today. Perhaps another day when the grilling and camping seasons are upon us. For today, I have made Keller's most viewed and perhaps most beloved recipe in the world!!! Remy's Ratatouille from the Disney film of the same name - Ratatouille! Click HERE to see a scene of Remy (a rat) making this ratatouille.

When I discovered that Thomas Keller had done the food styling for this film - one of Mark's and my absolute favorite films - I immediately began a search online for a recipe. It came up quickly (don't you LOVE the Internet?) and it took me a while to get up the nerve to make this. It seemed so complicated. Susan and Towny's post on French laundry was JUST the inspiration. (You really need to check out their blog on Provençal life - Susan's evocative writing and Towny's luscious photos will have you headed straight for your favorite airline site to book a trip!)

This version of ratatouille is so different from any I have had before, and I have had some good ones. But, like all Keller recipes, the presentation is truly a key ingredient to his creative success. And his version of this simple, stew-like, peasant dish is absolutely beautiful, not simple (in design), and definitely not just for peasants.

When I finished prepping the dish for the oven, I found myself looking at the rose window for a cathedral whose religion is food. Such color and texture I have never seen.

Yes, it is time consuming but not difficult and truly worth the effort. Don't try to plate it as they did in the movie - not as easy as it looks! (Those crafty rats made it look sooooo easy!)  I recommend bringing the skillet to the table and letting your guests see the beauty before you hack away at it. Then return to the kitchen to plate, style and decorate your plates.

By itself with a salad you have a lovely vegetarian meal. But it also makes a great side dish for Mediterranean dishes such a roast lamb or chicken.

In the movie, when the evil-turned-good food critic Anton Ego said, "After reading a lot of overheated puffery about your new cook, you know what I'm craving? A little perspective. That's it. I'd like some fresh, clear, well seasoned perspective," Food critics often say that a celebrated chef doesn't deserve the praise s/he gets, but here I add my perspective: more than once I have been inspired by a chef to go outside my comfort zone when making a meal, or even a particular dish... and to plate my meals as though I was applying paint to canvas. Without the creativity of people like Thomas Keller, my kitchen would be nothing. My table would be bare.
So, Mr. Keller.... NOW can I get a reservation??

Bon appétit!

~ David

Remy’s Ratatouille

1/2 each red, yellow and orange bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup finely diced yellow onion
12 ounces (about 3) plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded & finely diced, juices reserved
1 sprig each fresh thyme and flat-leaf parsley
1 fresh bay leaf
1 medium zucchini (4 to 5 ounces) sliced in sixteenth-inch thick rounds
1 Japanese eggplant (4 to 5 ounces) sliced into sixteenth-inch thick rounds
1 yellow (summer) squash (4 to 5 ounces) sliced into sixteenth-inch thick rounds
4 plum tomatoes, sliced into sixteenth-inch thick rounds
2-3 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon crema balsamica (balsamic glaze)
Assorted fresh herbs (such as thyme flowers, chervil, thyme)

Preheat oven to 450°F. Line a baking sheet with foil. Place pepper halves on the baking sheet, cut side down. Roast until the skins loosen, about 15-20 minutes. Remove the peppers from the oven and let rest until cool enough to handle. Reduce the oven temperature to 275°F.

Peel the peppers and discard the skins. Finely chop the peppers, then set aside. In medium skillet over low heat, sauté onion in oil until very soft but not browned, about 8 minutes. Add the tomatoes, their juices, thyme, parsley and bay leaf. Bring to a simmer over low heat and cook until very soft and little liquid remains, about 10 minutes. Do not brown. Add the peppers and simmer to soften them. Discard the herbs, then season to taste with salt. Reserve a tablespoon of the mixture, then spread the remainder over the bottom of a 10-inch oven-proof skillet (the bottom should be 8 inches).

Arrange the sliced zucchini, eggplant, squash and tomatoes over the bell pepper mixture in the skillet. Begin by arranging 12 alternating slices of vegetables in a pinwheel in the center, overlapping them so that 1/4 inch of each slice is exposed. This will be the center of the spiral. Around the center strip, overlap the vegetables in a close spiral that lets slices mound slightly toward center. You should have 5 concentric rings of vegetables. Set aside. (All vegetables may not be needed – you can use the rest for a frittata.)

Drizzle the vegetables with 2-3 teaspoons olive oil, then sprinkle with thyme leaves and season with salt and pepper. Cover the skillet with foil (I followed Keller’s directions and not Remy’s – he used parchment!) and crimp edges to seal well. Bake until the vegetables are tender, about 2 hours. Uncover and bake for another 30 minutes. (Lightly cover with foil if it starts to brown.) If there is excess liquid in pan, place it over medium heat on stove until reduced. (At this point it may be cooled, covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days. Serve room temperature or reheat in 350°F oven.)

In a small bowl whisk together the reserved tablespoon bell pepper mixture, oil, vinegar, herbs, and salt and pepper to taste. To serve, heat the broiler and place skillet under it until lightly browned. Slice in quarters and lift very carefully onto plate with an offset spatula. Turn spatula 90 degrees as you set the food down, gently fanning the food into fan shape. Drizzle the vinaigrette around plate. Use the crema balsamica to decorate the rim.

 Serves 4 as a light entrée, and 6 as a side dish.

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