Ratatouille and a Gray Winter Day

January 12, 2011 in Blog Recipes, Diabetic Menu Item, Mediterranean, Nutrition, Weight Management by Joyce Bunderson

My native Californian eyes are looking out on a gray world with a skiff of snow on the ground from a few lazy flakes drifting from the sky, adding to the thick heavy rock-hard blanket that’s been there for weeks. The thermometer inside the house says that I should be warm enough; but the gray skies and my frigid fingers tell me that I need to be thinking ‘soup, stew or some other warming food’ for dinner. That thought naturally (smile) set me off on the movie Ratatouille (rat-a-too-ee) – naturally!

I had a little overnight ‘boy party’ for 5 of our grandsons (ages 10 to 12) a few days after Christmas; and instead of challenging their food preferences, I decided to take them to restaurants attractive to them all, which serve unhealthy fast foods– there were five to argue with, after all. Note: I did make Dr. Grandma’s pancakes for breakfast, served with berries and whipped cream. Of course, some had maple syrup and butter, because that’s what they’re used to; one, who is used to white flour pancakes said, “Grandma, these are the best pancakes ever.” To those who didn’t want to try the mixed berries instead of syrup, I said: “Don’t worry, your taste buds will grow up and you will one day, say ‘Mixed berries on pancakes is heavenly.’ How can I impact the nutritional IQ of my grandsons? This little scenario and the gray skies have again led me to Ratatouille.

One of the lines in the movie, Ratatouille, is stated when the father rat is speaking to the main character rat, Remy, he says; “Shut up and eat your garbage.” Without going off on the rude remark (shut up) or the cuisine of rats (garbage), I’d like to say a bit about the desire of a lowly rat to strive to serve a grander purpose in life. It seems apparent that I’m not the only one who joys in the rags to riches stories like the lowly kitchen cleaner (Alfredo Linguini of Ratatouille) and the rat (Remy); Susan Boyle (whose voice pleases millions – didn’t start in rags but certainly was unknown); and the homeless Ohio man Ted Williams with the “golden” voice (a perfect example of a true ‘rags to riches story’). Some dreams ‘of a grander purpose’ come true almost overnight but many are lifelong endeavors that never flourish during the dreamer’s life. But should the rest of us embrace our dreams, even though it’s unlikely that we will ever experience the success of the very few?  I say “yes.”

Many of us are not born into wealthy, well-educated families, but in a land of freedom, where we (even we women) are taught to read, we can raise our level of experience and that of our children and family. We may not all be financially wealthy, but we can raise our level of experience in ways that are within our budget. An example from my childhood: Fairly proper table manners were expected at my humble childhood table (it cost nothing but the time and effort of parent or grandparent). For those teaching moments, I am grateful. I never went to the opera or symphony, but recordings were played that introduced me to the beautiful music of the world; and yes, I appreciate the introductions. And as these posts always circle back to nutrition, my contention is that our culinary and nutritional intelligence and experience can be influenced in much the same way.

I believe, though I am but one older person, that I can help us move away from the fast, junk, processed, substances – ‘fude;’ that the purveyors call ‘food’ even though they don’t optimally nourish us; and indeed don’t provide the complex flavors of fine dining. I know it sounds as crazy as a rat cooking in a kitchen, but maybe working together, you and I, we can give it a try to see what can be done for each of us and our families.

Being the beginning of the year, I’ve been thinking about how to further develop my greater dream ‘Helping people improve their nutritional status and positively impacting health’ and how this dream can be moved forward in 2011. A short Flixxy.com video of the comparison of longevity and income can help you feel the significance of my dream. The 200 years of remarkable progress is illustrated in such a fun dynamic way. Yes, the dots, big and small are of nations and not of individuals. But averaging populations of individuals make the contents of the dots. [Note that the graph shows 75years as the top average age and $40,000 as the top income.] We know that we can move beyond these country averages, as individuals.

Of course, there are many things that have contributed to the increased lifespan of humanity, including a few that just pop into my mind: inoculations; improvement of disease theory and treatment; the industrial revolution and the ability of fewer persons needed to raise the food (less starvation); advanced methods to transport and store food (refrigeration, freezing, drying, canning, cryopacking, pasteurization, and sterilization), vastly improved medical care; and lastly a growing knowledge of nutrition.

But is something impeding our progress toward moving us to the upper right of the graph (“rich and healthy” vs. the “poor and sick” lower left)? My knowledge and expertise is mostly about how to effect a change in moving up on the vertical axis (life expectancy). Although getting an education, did affect my ability to earn proportionately more than my ancestors, economic growth is not my expertise. So I want to focus on skills that I could share which would impact our life expectancy. Certainly I have been working on this goal/dream for decades, but this year, as always, I’d like to give it a slightly different spin. This year, I’d like to remember to focus on eating a delicious healthy diet, economically. Undoubtedly, there are those who would say that you must spend more to eat a delicious and nutritious diet. From my decades of experience in the kitchen and the classroom, I don’t agree with this notion on two levels. One, I think if you subsist on a fast/junk food diet, you will eventually pay for it in medical costs (see true-cost accounting). Two, if you learn to wisely shop and cook real food (see the recipe for Ratatouille below) you will be surprised how many meals your grocery dollar can yield.

One of the most effective ways of making food taste great is through the use of herbs and spices. These natural additives are unlike the hedonics of salt, fat and sugar that the food processors rely on. They are not cheap like salt, most fats used in processed ‘fudes,’ and sugar, but they help produce extraordinarily goodness -- like a fine Mediterranean cuisine (think French, Italian, Moroccan, Greek, fine American cuisine, and so on). I want to help you understand, if you just put a simple pile of eggplant on a plate, you and your children will say; “Thank you very much, but I choose the (fatty, salty) French Fries and burger.” Eating delicious foods doesn’t have to be extraordinarily difficult to be extraordinarily delicious. Alfredo, the kitchen cleaning young man with Remy the rat guiding him said, “You’re the one getting fancy with the spices.” It’s a significant line; herbs, spices and flavor combinations are an important part of what makes foods taste marvelous.

Taste is an important part of the equation if you’re striving for eager appetites for truly delicious and nutritious homemade food. Surely, it is no secret that the food processors know and use information about spices. Unfortunately, they use a surfeit of salt, fat and sugar (super cheap ingredients) and a dearth of vegetables and whole grains, which leads to suboptimal nutrition and often to weight management problems. It’s most interesting to me, the surprise that so many persons share when they discover the TASTES available with real food. As Dr. Grandpa observed in an earlier post “The wonderful discovery came a matter of weeks after I launched into the diabetic diet under the guidance of Dr. Grandma… What happened is that my taste buds came alive.”  When the heavy-handed use of sugar, salt and fat are removed. It’s almost universal. For example, when you get used to less sugar, you begin to find items that were previously enjoyed as ‘way too sweet.’ You will hear exclamations of delight when they taste the flavors of well-seasoned real food. There is a big pay off in taking the time to cook real food; beginning with taste, followed by being better nourished on fewer calories (which, definitely helps you maintain a healthy weight).

Civilization has made huge strides against disease caused by germs, in medicine, and the production and distribution of things called “food”. But what has slowed our movement to the upper part of the “rich and healthy” graph, presented so effectively by Swedish Scientist Hans Rosling? Part of the answer, one that we’re so painfully aware of at Dr. Grandma’s, is: too many calories; not enough exercise, lifestyle problems that unquestionably lead to morbidity and mortality through obesity, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, some cancers, hypertension, dyslipidemia, stroke, liver and gallbladder disease, sleep apnea, respiratory problems, osteoarthritis, reproductive complications, and the psychological distress caused by obesity. We in American and other developing nations are no longer plagued with starvation. Today our malnutrition is most frequently – over-nutrition. So maybe this year, you can begin taking some steps toward more frequent meals at home – delicious meals that become a preference over restaurant meals; fast food meals and overly processed foods. This is a long-lasting and enjoyable way of managing weight; making nourishing homemade meals where we control the ingredients and the flavors can contribute to each of us having a grander purpose in life. We CAN provide a re-education for our fat, salt, and sugar-jaded palates.  We CAN re-educate our taste buds. We CAN offer nourishment of soul and body. As Michael Pollan says: “food is also about pleasure” – the sheer pleasure of flavor and a comfortable fullness of well-being.

So where to begin my focus? At this point, there is no chance of surprise - I will start with the Mediterranean flavors of Ratatouille. My musings at the beginning of this post were about last night’s dinner and today’s gray cloudy sky. They got my thoughts on Ratatouille – Flavorful Ratatouille Soup. P.S. No rats no matter how gourmet, (except the spirit of Remy under my chef’s hat), are allowed in the Bunderson kitchen, thank you very much.

Flavorful Ratatouille Soup

This very low fat, low calorie soup is not as fast as opening a can, but the nutritional value, aroma and flavor that fills your home, plus the amount of real, actual food is impressive. The soup, made as the recipe below, yields a full 5 quarts – that’s 20 cups. You can either feed a large group or you can have the soup on the day you originally cook it and the rest waiting in the refrigerator (marinating to an even better flavor). For this many meals/servings, this is easier than travelling to, then waiting in a fast food line – and it competes favorably with buying and opening salt-laden cans with a sparse amount of vegetables. Believe me, the flavors are extraordinary and the costs are modest.

To save measuring time you can use 6 to 7 teaspoons of Herbs de Provence (common herbs grown in Southern France) instead of the basil, fennel, marjoram, rosemary, thyme and savory. Investing in herbs is one of the best investments in enjoying the rich flavors of a plant-based diet. If you invest in the single bottled herbs, then you have them ready for different recipes, but Herbs de Provence is certainly convenient.

If you or your family does not consider soup a meal without animal protein, add some fish and call it Ratatouille Bouillabaisse, or chicken or meat and call it Minestrone – the flavor will be there, whichever way you decide to serve it.

You can surely cut the recipe to half or a fourth; but you may want to consider making the full recipe (making the full recipe is not much more work than half the recipe) and freezing it for up to 3 months. Place a quantity that you will use within 4 or 5 days in a freezer proof container. Thaw in the refrigerator or microwave. It is best if allowed to marinate (flavors to ‘marry’) in the refrigerator for a day prior to freezing.


2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 cups yellow onion, chopped

3 teaspoons garlic, minced

1 teaspoon dried basil

¼ teaspoon fennel seed

2 teaspoons marjoram

½ teaspoon rosemary

2 teaspoons thyme

1 teaspoon savory

½ bunch (about ½ cup) fresh parsley, chopped; or use 2 tablespoons dried

7 cups low sodium chicken or vegetable broth

4 cups mushrooms, coarsely chopped

6 – 8 cups eggplant, diced

3 cups zucchini, diced

2 cups bell pepper, chopped (any color)

6 cups canned diced low sodium tomatoes, or fresh Roma tomatoes

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon ground pepper

Sprinkle with Wondra flour, to thicken slightly (optional)

Diced fresh mozzarella cheese for garnish or a dollop of Greek yogurt (optional)


Caramelize the onion in the oil. When the onions are lightly brown, add the herbs and garlic; stir and add the fresh chopped parsley. Add the broth and bring to a simmer. Add the chopped vegetables and continue to simmer, until veggies are tender, about 15 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and sprinkle with flour if you desire a little more thickness. Or alternately, you can blend two or three cups of the soup, for the desired thickness. Ladle the soup into bowls and top with cubes of mozzarella cheese or Greek yogurt, if desired.

Earlier, on the afternoon before this was served for the evening meal, Dr. Grandpa was trapped into eating some trail mix as a filler between meetings.  He hates the overpowering blast of fatty sugar of M&M’s mixed liberally with the nuts and raisins, and the un-well feeling it produces in his tummy.  While eating the Ratatouille Soup, he offered numerous expressions of delight at the flavors and textures, and afterward, a comment on the feeling of well-being in the healthy fullness it provided.

Collect ingredients.

Brown the onions.

Add the herbs and garlic.

Stir and continue heating for a couple of minutes.

Chop a half bunch of parsley.

Add the parsley to onions and herbs.

Stir the parsley into the onion mixture.

Add the broth.

Chop the mushrooms.

Measure four cups of coarsely chopped mushrooms.

Add mushrooms to the soup.

Dice the zucchini.

Dice the eggplant.

Add eggplant to the soup.

Chop the peppers.

Stir all the veggies well and simmer.

Add the tomatoes and heat.

Add a bit of Wondra flour or blend some of the vegetables for thickness.

Serve with diced Mozzarella cheese cubes, if desired.