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.
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