Crisp farm-to-table vegetables, vine-ripened Creole tomatoes, and home-grown herbs are sautéed and stewed down in my Southern Ratatouille, the Louisiana version of a classic French Provencal side dish. It is a dish that beckons me to return to a special place and time.
The summer I spent years ago traveling the back roads of Southern France was a culinary epiphany of sorts as I connected to the food of the region. I am a student of French cooking, and while I’m not classically trained, I’ve had a lifelong curiosity for French culinary history and technique. I find that French people elevate cooking to an art form; they approach it all quite seriously. For me, it is both fascinating and romantic.
That summer, Roxanne and I fell in love with the terroir and the locals that inhabit the villages, farms, markets, and shops of Provence. Author Peter Mayle was partially responsible for my itinerary; I was reading his best-selling novel A Year In Provence and retraced his steps through the region. Aix-en-Provence was our home base where we ventured out for day trips in search of cultural adventure. At every turn, every fork in the road, there were exciting discoveries. That trip was the catalyst for this blog and my love affair with the cooking of South Louisiana.
Although a vast ocean of differences separates the two regions, they have so much in common: a cultural reverence for food, traditions and customs tied to French heritage, and a colorful cast of characters who make up the local foodway. Farm-to-table sourcing at local markets like our Lafayette Farmers and Artisans Market at the Horse Farm have upped the culinary game here in Acadiana, and the growing list of growers and processors have elevated the quality of this region’s food culture.
For me, the one dish that defines the provincial cooking of Southern France is ratatouille. It is a classic side dish, but on rural French tables it shows up often as the main attraction along with a baguette of bread and a jug of red wine. It’s a simple vegetable dish–some might say a peasant dish–but I believe it represents the philosophy of French cooking and easily connects to my Acadiana in my version–Southern Ratatouille.
With a few locally focused ingredient substitutions, I set out to interpret my Southern Ratatouille as an equally iconic dish of Southern Louisiana. Instead of zucchini, I’m using traditional mirliton (chayote squash)–a common ingredient on Cajun tables. Whole pods of okra are stewed in my ratatouille along with fresh parsley and rosemary from my herb garden. And ripe, red Creole tomatoes and yellow onions infuse my skillet with color and flavor. At the farmer’s market, Inglewood Farm had fresh yellow eggplant—golden round orbs that soak in the flavor of all the farm-fresh ingredients.
Follow my lead and improvise in making this classic Southern Ratatouille with the freshest ingredients you can find.
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 medium yellow onions, peeled and roughly chopped
- 2 cups roughly chopped eggplant
- 2 cups roughly chopped mirliton squash
- 3 sweet peppers or bell peppers, cut into chunks
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic
- 1 cup roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 2 large Creole tomatoes, quartered
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- ¼ cup chicken stock
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- ½ teaspoon dried thyme
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 6 medium-sized pods of okra
- Extra-virgin olive oil, for finishing
- Flat-leaf parsley, for garnish
- In a large skillet with a heavy lid over medium-high heat, add the oil. Once hot, add the onions. On top of the onions, add the eggplant, squash, peppers, garlic, and parsley. Once the onions begin to brown, about 5 minutes, stir the mixture by scraping from the bottom with a spatula and incorporate all of the vegetables.
- Lower the heat to medium and add the tomatoes, tomato paste, and chicken stock. Add the rosemary, oregano, and thyme, and season with salt and pepper.
- Stir the mixture and add the okra pods on top. Cover the skillet, lower the heat, and let simmer for 15 minutes until the vegetables are cooked through but not breaking down. Turn off the heat and let rest before serving.
- For serving family-style, place the skillet of ratatouille on the table, drizzle with olive oil, and garnish with a sprig of parsley.
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