CHEF: Andre de Waal
PHOTOGRAPHS BY THOMAS ROBERT CLARKE
Andre de Waal was barely a teen when he had a gastronomic epiphany: It is cooler to like all foods than it is to be a fussy eater. From that moment forward, the future executive chef and co-owner of Andre’s in Sparta began whittling away at his list of food aversions, knocking off the final two items—hard-boiled eggs and bananas—when he was well into adulthood.
Although ratatouille was on that original list of disliked foods, de Waal now sees it as a versatile and indispensible platform on which to build seasonal dishes. “I love it cold, I love it warm,” de Waal says. “It is great to just have on hand—mix it with a little mayonnaise, spread it on bread and it’s the beginning of a sandwich. Or toss it into an omelet. It is very versatile.”
De Waal begins his ratatouille by forming a picture in his mind of the flavor and texture he wants in the finished dish. That decision takes into account the season as well as the protein that the ratatouille will accompany. “If it’s a hardier dish or a colder time of year where I want it to be more stick-to-your-ribs, then I would do the more classical preparation where it’s all cooked slowly together,” de Waal says. “If I am going to serve it with some fresh poached seafood as a cool summer salad or if I want it to be a little lighter, then I go with the version where each vegetable is cooked separately and combined at the last minute.”
To accompany his garlic-glazed halibut, de Waal chose a summer-style ratatouille, in which the ingredients are finely diced and each is cooked in a way that optimizes its flavor. The result is that each vegetable maintains its own integrity, both in texture and flavor. “I’m cooking each one individually, with its own proper temperature and the right amount of oil,” de Waal says. “The onions are going to cook nice and slow to bring out the sweetness. The zucchini will go much faster. The super-beautiful in-season tomato is just going to get warmed up. I don’t even need to cook that.”
To avoid overpowering the flavor of the vegetables, de Waal uses an 80/20 blend of vegetable oil and olive oil. He recommends seasoning throughout the cooking process. He also leaves the skin on the eggplant to add a slightly bitter edge to the dish.
Once each vegetable has been cooked, de Waal combines them briefly so that their juices mingle. The juices are then strained out and cooked down to make a sauce for the dish. To retain their flavor, fresh herbs are added to the sauce at the very end. The herbs can vary depending on the time of year, but de Waal is adamant about using only fresh herbs.
To finish the sauce, he adds a swirl of butter or olive oil. This added fat brings together the flavors of the sauce and, says de Waal, coating your palate so that, after you swallow, you have a lovely lingering taste of summer vegetables and herbs.
112 Tomahawk Trail, Sparta