Round off the summer veggie season with ratatouille

September 2, 2022

The local tomatoes have been gorgeous this summer – smooth-skinned, generously sized, messily juicy and bursting with flavor. I may have committed the familiar mistake of “eyes bigger than my stomach” the last time I walked through the market, purchasing so many of the red beauties I ran the risk they would turn before I used them. Since I was equally greedy with other fresh vegetable purchases, it was clearly ratatouille time.

A popular country recipe that originated in Provence, ratatouille is a summer vegetable stew made from eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers, tomatoes and onions. Its name comes from the French words rata, which indicates a stew with coarse pieces, and touiller, which refers to the action of mixing the ingredients together. Just like me, the growers needed to use their entire end-of-season harvest.

The key debate about ratatouille is how to make it. Purists insist that each vegetable must be separately prepared: roasted or browned individually before everything is combined and tossed with fragrant herbs to finish cooking. Julia Child’s approach is to sauté the eggplant and zucchini separately, then set them aside to make a tomato-onion compote used as a sauce. Her assembly entails alternating layers of vegetables with the sauce and cooking the dish to perfect tenderness.

Thomas Keller of The French Laundry offers a contemporary twist by slicing all the vegetables into paper-thin rounds and arranging them in overlapping circles on a spicy mixture of roasted red pepper and tomato. The layered vegetables are seasoned with fresh herbs and baked. As each slice of this almost-pie is served, it’s drizzled with a lush vinaigrette. For those of you who remember the animated file called “Ratatouille,” this is the version prepared by the star chef, Remy, who just happened to be a rat.

My approach is not nearly as complicated. I just use the vegetables I have, which means there’ll be no green bell peppers in my ratatouille (ever). Forget about cooking each ingredient separately and taking them out of the skillet to cook the next one. Instead, I start with the vegetables that need the longest time to soften: onion and eggplant (unless you have the beautiful white baby eggplant that don’t even require peeling like their large purple cousins). While these sauté in olive oil, I chop the garlic, tomatoes and zucchini.

After tossing in the last of the vegetables, I chop parsley or marjoram, or turn to the dried-spice cupboard for Herbes de Provence. Once the seasonings are added, the pan is moved to the oven and baked into a meltingly delicious stew. The baking step isn’t my favorite in this summer heat, so cooking it stovetop is always an option. Recipes for ratatouille vary widely, and an online search will give you endless variations in both ingredients and techniques.

You can serve ratatouille hot as a main course, sprinkled with shaved Parmesan cheese and a crunchy baguette. It’s great at room temperature as a side dish with grilled meat or a wedge of quiche. Try ratatouille for breakfast or lunch as a savory filling for crepes or an omelette. And, when your pot of ratatouille is empty, you can return to the market for replacement ingredients while they’re still in abundant supply.

Easy Ratatouille
2 T olive oil
1 chopped onion
2 pressed garlic cloves
1 eggplant, peeled & chopped
1 zucchini, trimmed & chopped
4 tomatoes, chopped with juice
2 T chopped parsley
1 sprig thyme
1 sprig rosemary
2 T capers, drained
salt & pepper, to taste
6 shredded basil leaves (optional)
Parmesan cheese for garnish
Preheat oven to 350 F. Heat the olive oil over medium low in a Dutch oven. Add the onions and cook until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and sauté another minute. Add eggplant and cook until slightly softened, about 5 minutes. Add zucchini and tomatoes. Stir in parsley; toss in thyme and rosemary sprigs. Cover pan and simmer over medium low for about 15 minutes. Remove lid and continue cooking for another 10 minutes for sauce to thicken. Remove herb sprigs and discard. Stir in capers and adjust seasoning. To serve, garnish with shredded basil and shaved Parmesan cheese.

1 lb eggplant
1 lb zucchini
1 t salt
1/4 C olive oil
1/2 lb thinly sliced onions
1 C sliced green pepper
2 smashed garlic cloves
1 1/2 C tomato pulp
3 T minced parsley
salt & pepper
Peel eggplant; cut lengthwise into slices 3/8-inch thick, 1-inch wide and 3-inches long. Scrub zucchini and trim ends; cut into slices like the eggplant. Place eggplant and zucchini slices in a bowl and toss with salt; let stand for 30 minutes. Drain the vegetables and pat dry with a towel. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium high. Sauté slices briefly on each side to brown lightly; set aside. Add onions and green pepper to the skillet and cook until tender, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and cook for a minute. Arrange the tomato pulp over the onions and pepper in the skillet. Cover the pan and cook on low for about 5 minutes. Uncover the pan and raise heat to high. Baste with juices, cooking until all liquid has evaporated. Spread one-third of the tomato mixture in the bottom of a 3-inch-deep stovetop casserole dish. Sprinkle with 1 T parsley. Spread half the eggplant and zucchini slices; top with half the remaining tomato mixture and 1 T parsley. Cover with remaining eggplant and zucchini; finish with remaining tomato and parsley. Place a lid on the casserole and simmer over low heat for 10 minutes. Raise heat to medium and cook, uncovered for 15 minutes, basting with juices. Serve warm or at room temperature. *Adapted from Julia Child.

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Mayo is never used for barbecue sauce in the Carolinas. Alabama uses a mayo-based sauce. South Carolina uses a mustard-based sauce. - George Pittman

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