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Cook Smarter

Ratatouille is the perfect proving ground for mise en place as it requires many ingredients and plenty of chopping.

This recipe is taken from the family files of Frank Ruta, the chef and co-owner of Palena restaurant in Cleveland Park. As befits a former White House chef, his recipe is labor-intensive. It is unlike most ratatouille recipes in that each vegetable is cooked separately.

Home Work

The first key to professional-style home cooking is to organize an assembly line of individual stations where you measure, chop and cook -- each in discrete stages.

The second key is to take breaks between each stage.

• Start clean: Put on a clean apron and turn on your favorite music. Clear your counters and stove top of any extraneous equipment or ingredients and sponge them down. What the heck -- if you want to really play professional, pretend the health inspector might show up and sweep your floor, too. Then go look at the sky.

• Assemble all your equipment. Place any pots you'll need on your burners and make sure all utensils are easy to reach. Set out your favorite cutting board and place a damp towel beneath it to ensure that it does not slide. Sharpen your knife. Dance to the music a little.

• Assemble your ingredients. If your counters are separated into different areas by your sink and stove, consider using one as your work space and another for your raw materials.

If you are working from a recipe, use the ingredient list as a checklist. Pull out all your "dry stores": all the oils, vinegars, spices and seasonings you will need. If you like using ramekins, go ahead and measure the ingredients at this point, too. Otherwise, put the containers in an area with measuring spoons and cups nearby. Before opening the refrigerator door, review every vegetable and fruit you'll need, then pull them all out at once. Check out the evening news.

• Wash, peel, chop. . . . Then wash all your vegetables, peel whatever needs to be peeled and start chopping. As you finish each ingredient, place the prepped materials in individual bowls and set aside for easy retrieval later. I like to start with vegetables and do meats and fish last to keep my cutting board as sanitary as possible. When all the prep is done, wash and put away the cutting board and knife, and take another rest if you're not pressed for time. The cooking comes next, so it's nice to be refreshed.

-- Emily Kaiser

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It is essential to let the ratatouille sit an additional 15 to 20 minutes "off the fire" -- in its cooking vessel but without any additional heat -- to allow the flavors to marry.

In Italian home cooking, this final rest is called insaporire (een-sah-PO-REE-reh), which roughly translates as "to flavor," but in practice has a much more complex meaning. "At the final stage, after you've done all your cooking, you take it off the fire, and let it sit. The flavors come together, and can mellow each other out," says Ruta.

3 small zucchini

2 small eggplants

1 red bell pepper

1 green bell pepper

2 small yellow onions

8 Roma tomatoes

4 cloves garlic

4 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, plus additional for serving

2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves

Bouquet garni of 4 basil leaves, 1 stalk parsley and 1 stalk rosemary


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