There is something about this dish that really plays on my fantasy of living in the French countryside. It’s a traditional Provencal summer dish, the ingredients of which could be gathered solely from one well-planned garden in July and throughout most of August. The ingredients are not exclusive to the south of France; my own grandmother would have grown the traditional zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes and peppers in her garden in rural Kentucky.
It’s the abundance of herbs that inspire the romance around this dish for me. (My grandmother didn’t grow many herbs). Any combination of summer herbs: basil, parsley, thyme, rosemary are typical. I’ve read some French cooks even add fresh lavender, which I’ve yet to try. Some fantasies may best be kept elusive.
Perhaps the romance lies in how ratatouille represents what is best about French country cooking: simplicity. It’s really just a vegetable stew. There is a brilliant humility about it.
Like so many other iconic national dishes, ratatouille has some essential ingredients - eggplant, zucchini and tomato - along with possible other elements that vary from cook to cook. These elements are usually guarded like a dark family secret.
My recipe includes balsamic vinegar: not a traditional ingredient to ratatouille, although some cooks do use it. It is a sweet and tart contribution.
The vibrant colors of the ingredients reflect the depth of phytonutrients inherent in this dish: yet another reason to love it. For example: the deep purple eggplant (anthocyanin), the red tomatoes (lycopene), and the green zucchinis (chlorophyll). Instead of the usual red or green bell peppers, look for the orange or purple or yellow for beta-carotene and Vitamin C (source here).The aromatics (garlic and onions) bring allyl sulfides and bioflavonoids, for cancer prevention (source here). And those beautiful herbs I love bring in polyphenols and endless other beneficial nutrients (source here). I think it would be fair to call ratatouille a power dish - nutritionally speaking.
You can put a ratatouille together in various ways. I love the beautiful photos of the dish done with layers of sliced vegetables arranged in a circle, like a tian. But I am suspicious of how well the flavors meld presented like that. The success of a good ratatouille is the synergy between the ingredients, the melding of flavors. That’s what makes it a stew.
However, that does not mean that the cubed vegetables (as this recipe suggests) should collapse into each other completely. Mushy and unrecognizable is not the goal.
The secret to maintaining the integrity of each vegetable is two-part. First, take the time to sear the zucchini and eggplant to give them a nice crust. Second, don’t cook the ratatouille too long.
NOTE ABOUT THE EGGPLANT: The eggplant can be cubed with the skin left on, if you like. Some find the skins of eggplant bitter and if so, you can remove them. You can also take the time to salt and let the eggplant drain for half an hour to further remove any bitterness. Be sure to rinse and dry the cubed eggplant if you do this step.
NOTE ABOUT THE ZUCCHINI: Make sure you let the zucchini (and eggplant) get a nice brown crust. Don't overcrowd the pan while searing the vegetables; you may need to do it in several batches. It's worth the effort: you gain some texture to the vegetables that will keep them from becoming mushy.
NOTE ABOUT PEPPERS: This is another place where you can take liberties. If you love peppers and onions, feel free to cut them bigger. Adjust the size according to how much of their presence you want to see in the stew. I love them medium sized and deeply caramelized.
Serves 4 to 6 people
1 pound Zucchini, diced medium
1 pound Eggplant, peeled, seeded and drained on paper towels, then diced medium
1 medium or 2 small yellow onions, diced medium
2 Bell peppers of one or various colors, diced medium
1 head Garlic, chopped
2 pounds fresh tomatoes, cored and chopped rough
3 Tablespoons fresh herbs, chopped fine. Any combination of basil, parsley, thyme, sage, rosemary or lavender.
½ to 1 cup balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon sea salt or more to taste
1 teaspoon black pepper or more to taste
3 Tablespoons olive oil
In a large sauté pan or dutch oven, heat a tablespoon of olive oil on medium heat. Pan-sear the zucchini and eggplant in olive oil in batches to get a nice crust on all sides. Remove from the pan and set aside.
Add another tablespoon of olive oil and sauté onions, bell peppers and garlic until soft and deeply caramelized. Deglaze the pan with ½ cup balsamic vinegar. Reserve the rest if needed later.
Add the seared vegetables in with the aromatics and tomatoes. Cover and turn the heat on medium to start to soften the vegetables. Keep a careful eye on the stove and adjust the heat if the vegetables are cooking too fast. The lid will help to keep the juices steaming. Add ½ cup water or more balsamic if the pan is running dry.
When the vegetables are soft, add at least 3 tablespoons fresh chopped rosemary, parsley and thyme. Add 1 teaspoon salt and fresh cracked pepper or more to taste.
They shoot up from garlic plants like a crazy stalk and then fall gracefully into quirky curls, this way and that, heavy from their own weight. And when their curvaceous seed pods burst into flowers, you know the garlic bulbs below the soil are nearly, if not completely, ready for harvest.
Garlic scapes taste like garlic. A crunchier, greener version of garlic. They can be sautéed or stir-fried or braised in place of or with regular cloves, heightening the garlic flavor.
Garlic scapes are in season in June. It’s a fleeting season, so a sense of urgency is important. Snatch them up from your local farmers’ market. Though they’re not available for long, they will keep for awhile.
Seek to preserve their sinuous nature when you cook with them. Challenge yourself to slice them lengthwise, creating long thin wisps that twist and turn in the dish. It’s a fun exercise. Alternatively, dice them fine, like a green onion.
GARLIC SCAPE CONFIT:
Cut about 5 stalks in half lengthwise, or dice them.
Peel two or three heads of garlic. Place the wispy scapes and peeled garlic cloves into a very shallow baking dish, about one inch deep. Add a few sprigs of fresh thyme or other herbs. Pour enough extra virgin olive oil to cover the cloves and scapes. Cover the dish with foil and place in an oven set at 200 degrees.
Bake for about 30 minutes or so until the garlic cloves have softened. Check them after 15 minutes to make sure they aren’t browning too fast. You want light amber, not dark brown. Remove from the oven.
At this point you have something glorious: Garlic infused olive oil and soft roasted garlic cloves.
Serve the garlic cloves and scapes straight out of the baking dish alongside grilled or toasted bread. Or discard the scapes and thyme and store the garlic cloves and oil in an airtight jar.
The cloves can be tossed in salads or stirred into a rice dish; use the oil for vinaigrette or for drizzling onto fried eggs. You will find ways.
ARTICHOKE y AJO:
Take the garlic scape confit to another level by adding roasted artichoke hearts for a vegan variation on a traditional Mexican Camarones y Ajo.
After you pull the confit from the oven, crank up the heat to 400 degrees. If you are using canned or frozen artichoke hearts, make sure they are well drained and dry. Water is not a friend to the deep caramel results you are seeking when roasting. On a baking sheet with olive oil, roast the hearts for 15 minutes or so until caramelized.
While the artichokes are roasting, zest one lime and set aside to use as a garnish. Cut the lime in half and when the hearts come out of the oven, squeeze the lime over them and sprinkle with sea salt.
Add them to the garlic confit and garnish the dish with lime zest and fresh ground pepper. If you like heat, throw in some crushed red pepper flakes.
Serve with grilled bread, gluten free crackers or wooden skewers for spearing.
CAMARONES y AJO:
The traditional Mexican Camarones y Ajo that inspired the vegan version of this dish can be prepared the same way as the artichokes for a seafood version of this dish. Use a pound of small or medium peeled and deveined shrimp and roast in the same way as the artichoke hearts above. When the shrimp go from deep pink to pale, they’re ready.
In a busy restaurant kitchen, garlic is not something you will often see a cook lovingly peel and mince. There is no time for that.
Gallons of pre-peeled cloves are instead dumped into a commercial processor daily to be broken down into a fine paste, destined to be used up by the next day. It’s a high demand ingredient, a foundational part of close to every dish on the menu.
I never learned to like that task.
I never liked it because it made me face something important about cooking, and thus life. There is a distance between the intimacy of moderation and the weight of excess. What we can see and taste and hold in exuberant quantities stands to lose its charm. The senses become dulled and the sensual connection, lost.
And so, the romantic pungency of a single clove of garlic becomes noxious in high volume.
On another garlic note, sometimes we need to peel more than a couple of cloves and ASAP, so here is a little technique for making that easy: blanching.
Blanching is also an excellent way to soften the edge of garlic, and may be helpful for those who find raw garlic hard to digest. In this case, simmer a little longer, 5 to 6 minutes.
prana is the common thread running through everything i love....the sun on my face...the sunlight through my camera.... breathing the ocean air... the sound of my breath...laughing with family + friends.