I’m not sure how to say this without sounding like I’m complaining, so I’m just going to go for it. This past week was one of those weeks. Does this mean the honeymoon phase is over? I was talking about it to my neighbor, who I met for the first time last week. We all had to evacuate the building late one night due to a gas leak in the café below. True story.
After last week's gas leak incident, I was just starting to feel like I had the whole living-in-a-different-country thing down. Not only was I the proud new owner of a washing machine (most French apartments don't come with appliances, even the "furnished" ones), I managed to make homemade pizza for eight people in my studio apartment. Hey, this living in France thing isn't so hard, I thought to myself.
Then about a week later I came home to find out EDF (short for électricité de France) had cut off the power in my apartment. It turns out that despite my efforts to set up my espèce client online, they had never established my contract. You always need to call and you always need to set up a rendez-vous. No exceptions. The infamous RDV is a time when a person physically comes to your apartment to enact the service. I soon realized that no amount of begging and pleading on the phone was going to change the fact that the next available date was in a week. No lights or internet for a week. Right as school deadlines are starting to pile up. Perfect. “C’est l’enchaînement en ce moment.” Have you ever had that feeling, where it just seems to be one thing after another, like a series of unfortunate events?
Don't get me wrong. Living in France definitely has its perks (read: baguettes and charming buildings as far as the eye can see), but what it offers in cultural richness comes at a cost. Even the stuff that should be simple, like setting up electricity (ahem), seems to be incredibly complicated here.
And yet, even (especially?) in the midst of chaos, I find myself making some of the best meals. I definitely have my go-tos, those dinners I could make with my eyes closed, on autopilot. I go through phases, but currently it's been lots of stuffed peppers, eggs poached in tomato sauce and ratatouille. All simple but hearty meals that make the most of the fresh produce you find in abundance at any respectable French market: eggplant, zucchini, green bell peppers, and tomatoes. What I love about ratatouille is that it's literally impossible to screw up and it turns out a little different each time you make it.
Start by gathering your ingredients. In addition to all the veggies mentioned above, you'll need an onion, plenty of garlic, herbes de Provence and one or two cans of diced tomatoes.
- 1-2 cans of diced tomatoes
- 1 medium-sized eggplant
- 2 small zucchini, or 1 large
- 1 bell pepper (red or green)
- 1 onion
- Herbes de Provence (blend of Rosemary, thyme, oregano and a few others)
- Garlic cloves, to taste (I use a lot)
- Shredded parmesan or Comté cheese
There isn't one right way to make this Mediterranean dish. Start off by chopping all the vegetables (this is the most time-consuming part). You're going to want a skillet, a saucepan and a baking dish. So if you're looking for a one-dish dinner, this is not it. Your kitchen is going to look like a bomb went off, but it will smell like the south of France! Make sure you let the eggplant "weep" all of it's bitter juices (see photo above). Sauté the eggplant in olive oil with half the chopped onion and garlic. While the eggplant is cooking, add the chopped pepper, zucchini and remaining onion and garlic to the saucepan. Drizzle with a little olive oil and cover. When peppers start to soften and onions are transluscent, add cooked eggplant. Stir in diced tomatoes. Let simmer over medium heat for 10 minutes. Pour into baking dish and sprinkle with cheese. Bake at 375 for about 20 minutes or until cheese on top starts to brown. Cook rice while ratatouille is baking. Note: For a quicker stovetop version, skip the baking part.