Nothing says August to me like Ratatouille. A jumble of vegetables all at their peak in one dish. It's like Canada - a colourful melange of flavours, each ingredient still retaining their own personalities. Not sure if the French would agree, but that's how I like to think of it.
Ratatouille is a traditional vegetable dish of southern France. Using so many colourful vegetables, olive oil, bright tender herbs and garlic, this is a dish that easily conjures up the markets and landscape of that part of the world. My mind about this often dish was opened wide a couple of years ago when I was served it by gentile, Ann-Marie of Chateau Juvenal in Provence . The restored 19th century chateau setting, cicadas chirping in the night and of course the company all helped that Ratatouille taste better. After all a dish should taste better in the land it was born. But I knew there was more to it than that. After that glorious dish I came home with a new appreciation of this often mediocre side dish and a desire to recreate it at home.
At this time of year tables are bursting at the farmers markets with more fruits and vegetables than I can keep up with- everything in season at once. I load up on these late summer beauties making double batches as often as I can, freezing some for dull November days.
Ratatouille is the ultimate make ahead dish. Its flavour and texture becomes infinitely better after a night's rest in the fridge. I'm fairly opinionated about that fact. And the versatility of Ratatouille is what makes it a great leftover dish. Straight up it's a wonderful side dish completing almost any meal from a roast chicken or grilled salmon, to a bowl of white beans. It can be mixed into pasta with a little olive oil, piled into a pastry case and topped with cheese for an impressive tart or used as an edible dish in which to bake eggs, my personal favourite. There are so many ways to use it, although that's if you have enough leftovers. I sneak spoonfuls straight from the fridge a couple days later. It's better cold or at room temperature.
I've had my share of Ratatouille made from recipes that call for cooking all vegetables in succession, with a finally simmering. This produces a watery, overcooked, pale comparison of what it should and can be. If you loath Ratatouille, this is probably the version you've been exposed to. The secret to a great ratatouille, other than the obvious one of using great vegetables, is by cooking each vegetable separately and cooking just until tender. No final simmering is necessary, in fact its detrimental. A glaze made from the vegetable juices and a rest in the fridge will do all the marrying of flavours you need.
with assistance from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child and Fine Cooking magazine.
1 pound eggplant, peeled, sliced lengthwise into 1/2inch slices then into 1inch pieces
1 pound zucchini, sliced lengthwise in half, then into 1/2inch thick chunks
1/2 pound yellow onions, sliced lengthwise in half, then into 1/2in slices
1/4 tsp chile flakes
1/2 tsp herb de provence, or dried thyme or 4 sprigs fresh
1 pound red, yellow or orange peppers, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 pound tomatoes, peeled
1 Tbsp chopped garlic
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1/4 cup Italian parsley, chopped
1/4 cup basil leaves, chopped
Toss the eggplant and zucchini separately with 1/2 tsp salt and let sit in a bowl or colander while preparing the rest of the ingredients.
Peel the tomatoes with a serrated peeler or by dunking into simmering water until the skins start to split. At that point, plunge into cold water and slip the peels off. Remove the core, cut in half and gently squeeze the juice and seeds, reserving. If you have a food mill, reserve the skins and core along with the juice, pushing through the food mill, set aside. Slice the tomatoes into 1/2 inch strips.
Once all ingredients are prepared put the zucchini and eggplants onto separate towels, gather up the ends and blot up as much moisture as possible. Leave the eggplant in the towel as you start to cook the zucchini.
Heat a large saute pan for 2 minutes on med high heat. Add about 1 Tbsp olive oil, then the zucchini. Let cook until it starts to brown and then turn the pieces. They should get a nice colour on them and become just barely give to a point of a knife, while still retaining a bit of bite. Remove from pan to a large bowl. This should only take about 5 minutes.
Add another tbsp olive oil to the pan and when good and hot, add the eggplant, cook on medium and until cooked through, turning when browned. The point of a knife should easily slide into the eggplant, although it shouldn't fall apart. Turn heat down if browning too quickly. Once cooked, add to zucchini.
Add another Tbsp olive oil, adjust the heat, toss in onions, pinch of salt, pepper flakes and herb de provence. Saute, stirring often until onions are almost translucent. Raise heat slightly, add peppers and cook, stirring often until the vegetables are cooked through, glossy and the peppers still have a little bit of texture. Add the garlic to the pan at the last minute and toss.
Lay tomatoes on top of peppers, without stirring in. Cook without stirring until the tomatoes collapse, releasing all their juices. Keeping the tomatoes from cooking completely keeps the brightness to this Ratatouille. Pour pan contents into a colander set over a bowl and allow to drain for for a few minutes.
Add juices along with the reserved fresh juices and the vinegar, with a pinch of salt and pepper, to the saute pan and boil down over med heat, stirring often. Keep shaking the colander and adding more juices to the pan. Once a shiny thick glaze forms, coating a spoon, remove from heat.
Fold all vegetables together with the reduction and the fresh herbs. Adjust salt and pepper if necessary. Refrigerate overnight if you can.
The juice from the peppers helps to keep the onions from browning and keeps everything moist.
Ratatouille freezers beautifully. The vegetables might not have as much of their tenderness left, but the flavours will still be bright and have melded well. Try to use within 3 months though.