By Beth Schreibman-Gehring, Chairman of Education for The Western Reserve Herb Society unit of The Herb Society
My introduction to the classic French blend of Herbes de Provence was in the early seventies, when my long-haired and lovely, hippie sister came home from Chatham College having learned to make a sophisticated country French vegetable dish known as Ratatouille. I remember that day. She was standing over my mother’s stove and she looked like a kitchen goddess, surrounded by piles of diced vegetables, an exotic-looking bottle of extra virgin olive oil, a wooden spoon, sea salt and pepper grinders, and a ceramic jar that contained the most magical combination of herbs that I’d ever smelled.. I remember her recipe perfectly and it’s still a good one, actually the best I’ve ever made. Most make ratatouille by throwing all of the vegetables in a pot and cooking them all together slowly, but my sister’s ratatouille was different because she added the vegetables one at a time.
This way she produced a layering of flavor that cannot be accomplished by just impertinently throwing everything together and letting the whole thing quickly cook. It was one of those classic moments between sisters, where I just watched, listened, and absorbed what she was teaching. It took hours which I measured in tastes and laughter. It was the perfect way to pass on such a recipe.
I love to make this in the wintertime, because it turns my kitchen into the sunniest place in the house. The fragrance is remarkable and the flavor sublime. Layered into a tart shell and topped with fresh parmesan and mozzarella and a turn under the broiler you have a perfect supper when paired with a salad and a crusty loaf of bread. A few tablespoons of this on top of a grilled chicken breast or a piece of fresh tuna will transport you to the south of France.
Making a perfect Ratatouille is a lovely way to spend an afternoon. The secret is the slow cooking over the low flame and of course the Herbes de Provence (or as I love to refer to them as “the magic of the South of France in a bottle”).
It’s much fun to make Herbes de Provence but fortunately you can buy it at different places and still even find it in that fancy little French ceramic pot with the wooden spoon attached. Truthfully though … why buy it when it’s so easy to make.
The classic Herbes de Provence blend is a mixture of dried savory, fennel, basil, thyme, chervil, marjoram, and lavender flowers with a bit of dill. Or is it? I am told many variations exist depending upon whose Grandmère has passed the recipe along. I love to dry my chive blossoms and add these to the blend as my personal touch.
I always have the classic herbs growing fresh in my gardens so I play with the combinations, somet
imes adding a little more dill or a bit of fresh rosemary, based on what I am cooking. Usually, I start with a ¼ teaspoonful of each and then add a little more of whatever is needed. While I love to use this blend to flavor grilled fish or lamb, I find it most delicious blended into butter with a bit of garlic and tucked under the skin of a roasting chicken. Herbes de Provence are an integral part of my beef stew recipe and a perfect blend of seasonings to be whisked into a bit of homemade mayonnaise for a tuna, salmon, shrimp, or chicken salad.
I infuse my soup stocks with a bouquet garni of these fresh herbs. Just take the long stalks and tie them together with some kitchen string. Place them into the pot and remove when straining. This leaves behind fragrance and flavor into the soup without messy bits floating around. You can also infuse these herbs in olive oil to create wonderfully scented dressings or drizzles.
A little aside here: If you use sweet almond oil and increase the lavender and add a few drops of lavender essential oil, it makes a massage oil that’s relaxing and divine for your skin.
Now, back to my sister’s magical recipe.
A great ratatouille takes time to make and lots of it. You must begin with a good cast iron pot, a wooden spoon (and a frilly apron!). You’ll need lots of cubed eggplant, tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, green, red and yellow peppers, and green and yellow zucchini, about 8 cups total. Make sure to have your first glass of chilled white wine handy and a lovely runny piece of brie and a toasted baguette…cliché maybe, perfect YES!
Liberally lace the pot with about 4 tablespoons of olive oil and bring up the heat. Add about 6 cloves of minced garlic and stir gently, allowing the garlic to softly infuse the oil but not burn. Add two cups of mixed bone broth or a vegan broth, your choice. Then add the onions, sip the wine and cook this gently for about 10 minutes. Add the eggplant, the juice of one fresh lemon, and a bit of sea salt. Allow the eggplant to cook until translucent (about 15 minutes). Next press the juice from tomatoes and add the flesh. Stir gently and allow the combination to blend for about 10 more minutes. Then, add mushrooms, stir and continue sautéing for another 5 minutes while enjoying wine and brie.
Add the peppers and follow the same instructions as before. The zucchini goes in last. You can add more olive oil if needed and by now you’ve begun to create a lovely vegetable stew. At this point, add one cup of good white wine, a large knob of grass-fed butter, two additional cloves of minced garlic, and more salt and pepper to taste.
Cook the ratatouille gently for about another 10 minutes, stirring continuously. Then add three tablespoons of your favorite Herbes de Provence blend and let the ratatouille slowly simmer gently for about two and a half hours or until the wine has evaporated. Add a little more butter if necessary and then take about three handfuls of fresh basil leaves and stir them in. Let the ratatouille just sit peacefully for a few moments. Now take a piece of the baguette spread with the brie and about two tablespoons of the ratatouille. Breathe deeply, imagine that you’re sitting in the warm French sunshine. Do you need anything more?