Friday, 8 July 2011

50 Women Game-Changers in Food - MFK Fisher - Her Splendid Ratatouille

a spoonful of  thick sweet-smelling ratatouille

A really exceptional woman this week: Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher (1908-1992). The more I read about her, the more I want to read. Her writings crammed with vivid detail that make both places and food come alive are a real joy. I have included the whole description of her ratatouille simply because I don’t want you to miss any of the loving detail.

The first few years of her marriage to Alfred  Fisher were spent abroad mostly in France and particularly in Dijon, which at that time was considered the ‘gastronomical capital of the world’. Later she herself would describe the two years there as ‘two shaking and making years in my life’. Can you imagine how she must have loved it, how different it must have been to anything she had experienced before? There she learned how live and eat simply but well and her writings 'revere' this art, also 'of taking pleasure where it is found and of loving life with all of its challenges'.

This Seasonal Cook decided to make MFK’s ratatouille as I wanted a dish that uses all the beautiful ripe summer vegetables that are in abundance here just as they would have been for her in France.

my ingredients for the ratatouille

I know this dish well because my French mother would make it but this recipe is simpler in every sense, no courgettes for a start - that long cooking would turn them into mush - and no tomato purée either. I’m guessing that’s because the tomatoes she would have used, like mine here, were bursting with flavour anyway. 

my juicy tomatoes sliced generously

 I love the emphasis on the aubergines too although I was surprised to read yesterday that apparently they are not popular in the US. Is that really true? The long cooking 5-6 hours means this is not going to be something you knock up in a hurry! It’s a shame that my rustic pot isn’t here so I had to use my unfashionable orange Le Creuset which in fact did the job very well. Funnily enough, this dish isn’t made here in Turkey although there are a million and one aubergine dishes here, both meze and main. Same ingredients, different treatment, that’s all! 

So here is MFK’s evocative description of  her ratatouille:

“I learned to make ratatouille from a large strong woman, a refugee, not political but economic, from an island off Spain: There was not enough food to go around in her family, and she and her husband were the sturdies, so they got out. They ran a vegetable store with one little window and almost no space….She was a great big beautiful woman: coal-black hair, big black eyes, but a very big grossly overweight body. I do not know how she squeezed through that little square hole. She and her tiny husband evidently slept, ate, lived down there.

“She taught me more than her stew, without knowing that I often pondered on how she washed her gleaming hair and stayed generally so sweet smelling, when it was plain that both she and the lettuces must bathe at the public pump and sleep in the dark cellar or under the little counter. She cooked on a gas ring behind a curtain at the back of the store, and that is how I came to ask her questions, because her stew had such a fine smell. She looked at me as if I were almost as ignorant as I was, and after my first lesson from her I bought a big earthenware pot, which I still use.

“The first ingredients were and still are eggplant and onions, garlic, green peppers, red peppers, plenty of ripe peeled tomatoes and some good olive oil. Proportions are impossible to fix firmly, since everything changes in size and flavor, but perhaps there should be three parts of eggplant to two of tomatoes and one each of the peppers and the onions and garlic. I really cannot say.

“Everything is sliced, cubed, chopped, minced, and, except for the tomatoes, is put into the pot…thrown in, that is, for the rough treatment pushes down the mass.

adding all the ingredients to the pot
the final layer of tomatoes - next, the lid!

At the end, when there is less than no room, the tomatoes are cubed or sliced generously across the top, and the lid is pressed down ruthlessly. When it is taken off, a generous amount of olive oil must be trickled over the whole to seep down. Then the lid is put on again. It may not quite fit, but it will soon drop into place. The whole goes into a gentle (300 degree) oven for about as long as one wishes to leave it there, like five or six hours. It should be stirred up from the bottom with a long spoon every couple of hours. It will be very soupy for a time, and then is when it makes a delicious nourishing meal served generously over slices of toasted french bread with plenty of grated dry cheese.

after 4 hours
after 5 hours

Gradually it becomes more solid, as the air fills with the rich waftings which make neighbors sniff and smile. When it reaches the right texture to be eaten as one wishes, even with a fork, the lid can stay off and fresh shelled shrimps be laid amply on the top to turn white before they are stirred in, or small sausages already cooked well in beer or wine. Or it can simply be left in a turned-off oven to be chilled later for probably the best so-called ratatouille ever eaten.”

I used 5 aubergines, 5 big tomatoes, 1 big sweet red pepper, 1 green pepper, 1 1/2 onions,  and 4 cloves of garlic. My tomatoes were fabulous and VERY juicy as you can see from the pictures above. I could have gone on cooking!
And one last word about MFK, do read Her Friends Remember. The initial selection by Leo Racicot describing his first meeting with her is so touching:

'But she, the Mary Frances of my dreams, was lovelier than words can describe and more warm and welcoming than the sun that had finally come out from hiding.'

Isn't that lovely?


Here is the ever-growing list of those who have responded to Mary of One Perfect Bite's challenge: every Friday following the list of 50 Women Game-Changers in Food we cook a recipe from the list.

Heather - girlichef
Miranda - Mangoes and Chutney
Jeanette - Healthy Living

Hope you are enjoying this as much as we are!