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.
I would love to forage for ramps one day. I would do it more for the photo opportunity than for the fun of digging around the wet floor of the woods. I imagine the sun coming through the trees and hitting the little patches of graceful ramp leaves and how beautiful that would be.
I wonder how many times I might have walked over a crop playing in the woods as a child. My grandfather, a farmer, never talked about ramps or brought any home from the woods around the farm like he did persimmons and papaws. That leads me to believe ramps didn’t grow in that part of rural Kentucky. I had never heard of the precious wild spring onions until I was already grown.
And truthfully, I didn’t pay much attention when I did hear about them - at first. It’s one of those things in life that might stay on the periphery of your consciousness, then one day come into full focus. That’s when my devotion set in.
Ramps have a cult following. Here’s why: they grow wild (intrigue), they have a short season (rare) and they are in short supply (coveted). It’s as much these reasons as their flavor profile that has made them so hot in recent years. Though they are wild onions, I often forget that and call them wild garlic. The flavor suggests a hybrid of the two. It’s strong.
The leaves are what I really love about ramps. Otherwise, I would stick to my favorite green onion, the leek. Ramp leaves are beautiful. They’re long and triangular and elegant. You could use a small bunch to fan yourself, if temperatures were high in late April, early May. The bulbs are like a regular green onion, small, pungent. But the leaves are hearty in volume, delicate in texture, and can be prepared in countless ways. Their generous length means you can julienne them lengthwise and toss them with string pasta, like the recipe here.
It’s been so rainy here lately that I have skipped the farmers market, knowing that I was dangling on the edge of ramp season. This week, I scored a pound from a friend who had hoarded more than his share in his refrigerator. I took it as a sign that I should go ahead and share this recipe, despite being late in the season. I hope fate is as kind to you this weekend.
1 pound Jovial Gluten Free Tagliatelle or other string pasta of your choice
Butternut squash, about 1 pound
Ramps, 1 pound leaves and bulbs
Simple Mills Grain free Rosemary and sea salt crackers, 1 cup
Or substitute 1 cup any GF breadcrumbs + 1 tablespoon minced
rosemary + 1 teaspoon sea salt + 1 teaspoon olive oil
3 Tablespoons olive oil
2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
2 cloves garlic, finely minced.
Juice and zest of one lemon
¼ gram or generous pinch saffron, softened in half inch of warm water
1 ½ teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon white pepper
Preheat oven to 425 and slice the squash lengthwise in half. Spray a baking sheet with oil and lay the squash cut side down. Roast for 35 to 45 minutes or until soft. This can be done a day or two in advance.
Remove from the oven and scoop out and discard the seeds. Scoop the flesh into a blender and add half cup of the vegetable stock. Process until smooth.
Prep the Ramps
Cut and discard the thin stems, separating the white bulbs from the green leaves. Wash and dry both well. Finely mince the bulbs (this can be done super fast in a small food processor.) Set aside.
Julienne the leaves into long strips. Set aside.
Prep the Breadcrumbs
If you’re using the Simple Mills Rosemary crackers, process them into fine crumbs.
If you’re using gluten free breadcrumbs, toss them with the rosemary, lemon zest and olive oil and toast for a minute in a sauté pan on medium heat. Set aside.
Make the Sauce
Put a pot of water on to boil for the pasta. Meanwhile, heat a skillet to medium high and put in 1 tablespoon olive oil. Saute the ramp greens until they have wilted, about 3 minutes. Remove to a plate.
Add the other 2 tablespoons of olive oil and sauté 2 tablespoons of the minced ramp bulbs (reserve the others for another use) and 2 garlic cloves until soft, about 5 minutes. Deglaze the pan with the lemon juice/zest and the saffron/soaking liquid. Add the pureed squash and 1 cup of vegetable stock. Reserve the remaining half-cup of broth to thin out the sauce to your liking. Add the salt and pepper. Taste and adjust the seasonings, if needed.
Stir in the sautéed ramp greens. Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook 10 minutes or per the package instructions.
Remove the pasta with a slotted spoon to the sauce. Coat well with the sauce.
Garnish with the rosemary breadcrumbs.
Note about the pasta:
I used Jovial’s gluten free brown rice tagliatelle (made with eggs), because I wanted a pasta that would accommodate the long strands of ramp leaves. You can use any string pasta, of course. Jovial’s tagliatelle is as good as the handmade pappardelle I used to buy for this dish.
Note about the sauce:
The butternut squash gives this sauce structure and body. But it will thicken quickly, especially if reheated. You can add in extra vegetable stock to thin it out, if you like. Or even a little water.
Note about the breadcrumbs:
These are here purely for a textural punch and can be left out if you want. I’ve recently started keeping Simple Mills almond flour crackers (the rosemary is my current favorite) in the house at all times and discovered one night they make great breadcrumbs, with an easy whirl in the food processor. You can use any brand of gluten free breadcrumb and toast them with some chopped rosemary, lemon zest, sea salt and olive oil.
Note about Saffron:
Saffron is the arguably the most exotic and beautiful spice in the world. Words defy explanation of its flavor because there is no comparison. Its price point reflects its perceived value. It is beloved.
When cooking with saffron, you want to crush it between your fingertips and then soften it a bit in some liquid before adding it to a dish. A tiny bit of warm water or stock for three or four minutes is sufficient. Add the soaking liquid along with it. And never leave a single speck of it unused.
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