The Time Is Now for Ratatouille

"September is the best time of year for the market," declared Mister Mighty Appetite as we strolled through Arlington Courthouse market on Saturday morning.

I had just been thinking the same thing. September, in this part of the country, brings together the best of both worlds -- the climax of summer crops and the debut of cooler-weather, underground goodies hinting at the upcoming change of season. The choices are overwhelming.


The jewels of summer, at their peak, for a limited time only. (Kim O'Donnel)

But for right now, this very moment, it's the horn of plenty, a brief window with the most glorious view, a still life painting everywhere you turn and a bursting bubble of aromas and flavors. Who needs drugs when an intense sensory high is at the fingertips?

With such a rare and temporary opportunity of produce riches, now is the time to fire up the stoves and enjoy the bounty -- raw, cooked, preserved or frozen. It doesn't get any fresher, and there is no better time of the year to make ratatouille.

Everything you need for this Mediterranean-inspired veggie ragout- eggplant, peppers, zucchini, onion, garlic, tomatoes and leafy herbs -- is at its peak, which means the most unadulterated of flavors, little cooking time and seasoning.

The word "ratatouille" comes from rata, a French military slang term to describe a rough stew, according to Clifford A. Wright in his "A Mediterranean Feast." Here, rough means hearty, not composed or meticulously presented. It's cozy, comforting and saucy -- more like Canterbury Tales than Marie Antoinette.

With tomatoes as its centerpiece, ratatouille did not surface until the love apple arrived in Europe from the New World, but Wright suggests that 'ratatouille' is a term used to describe a ragout of local seasonal vegetables, which, depending on country, may include okra, beans and/or corn. That is to say, if you hate eggplant, leave it out of the equation and double up on zucchini (sorry tomato haters; you're out of luck here).

In fact, I'd suggest using the recipe below as a guideline, creating your own ragout according to taste. You'll see a list of optional add-ons that I contemplated during my ratatouille journey yesterday.

Regardless of what you decide, I urge you to season each ingredient individually rather than throw everything together and season as a whole. The results will be much more satisfying, trust me.

You'll need about 90 minutes, start to finish, to pull everything together, but the upside is that ratatouille improves with time, which means killer leftovers all week long.

We slurped up last night's serving with rice, but I think noodles or a hunk or crusty bread would do equally well to sop up juices. The ragout would work nicely with a simple piece of grilled fish, chicken or, as part of an omelette, a suggestion offered by cookbook author Martha Rose Shulman, whose recipe I share below.

Got a favorite ratatouille trick up your sleeve? Share in the comments area below -- or any other way you maximize the summer harvest.

Ratatouille
Adapted from "Ready When You Are" by Martha Rose Shulman

Ingredients
1 1/2 pounds eggplant (1 large globe eggplant or 3 thinner Asian eggplants)
salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
3 mixed red and yellow bell peppers, cored, seeded and cut into slices
4-6 garlic cloves, minced
1 large yellow or green zucchini, cut into ½ inch slices
black pepper to taste
3/4 pound tomatoes (3-4 medium tomatoes)
1 bay leaf
1-2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves (1/2 -1 teaspoon dried)
1 teaspoon fresh oregano leaves (1/2 teaspoon dried)
Chopped fresh basil an/or parsley to taste, for garnish

Optional add-ons: Chile peppers (to be cooked with onions and bell peppers), pitted olives (add just before serving) and gruyere or parmigiano (add just before serving), a can of chickpeas, added with tomatoes.

Method
Cut eggplant into 1/2 inch cubes (did not peel, but do so if it's an issue). Salt well and allow to drain at least 30 minutes (not absolutely necessary, but it does help to release some water).

Heat oven to 500 degrees. Place drained eggplant in a large, ovenproof casserole and toss with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Place in oven and roast 15-20 minutes, until eggplant is lightly browned and fragrant. Keep cooking if necessary.

Remove from oven and set aside.

In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over medium heat. Add onions and cook, stirring often, until tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in peppers and a generous pinch of salt; cook until peppers have softened, 5-10 minutes. Stir in half the garlic and cook for another minute, then season with salt and pepper and transfer to casserole with the eggplant.

Heat remaining tablespoon of oil in skillet and add squash, more salt to taste and black pepper and allow to cook, until squash is tender but still bright, 5-10 minutes. Stir in remaining garlic, then transfer to casserole. Add tomatoes to casserole, plus herbs and more salt and pepper to taste. Toss everything together and cook mixture over medium-low heat. Cover and cook for at least 15 minutes, stirring often. Mixture should be fragrant, veggies tender but still bright. Adjust seasonings as necessary.

Remove bay leaf and herb sprigs, if necessary. Stir in basil and parsley just before using.

Makes six servings. Will keep in fridge for about 5 days.

By Kim ODonnel |  September 10, 2007; 10:20 AM ET Dinner Tonight , Summer , Vegetarian/Vegan
Previous: Adventures in Home Canning | Next: A Quick Pickle Trick

Comments

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Kim,

You read my mind! We actually started making this wonderful dish about a month ago and it is a hit with my entire family. Rather than using fresh tomatoes, I have been using canned roma tomatoes (Wegman's brand) and have been including a mix of pitted olives and finishing it with feta cheese. I prefer the smaller striped eggplant.

We have been active farmer's market shoppers for a couple of years and I regret not thinking about this wonderful dish a long time ago.

Posted by: Lester Burnham | September 10, 2007 11:32 AM

I was able to buy all of these at our Farmers' Market. I added cumin and smoked paprika for the flavor and added noodles. My question is can you freeze this? And what causes the eggplant to just disappear after reheating?

Posted by: Dona Dunsmore | September 10, 2007 12:25 PM

What a coincidence! I am serving this tonight for a work dinner party. I made it over the weekend, together with cheese grits, both of which reheat well in the microwave. Definitely a crowd pleaser!

Posted by: akmitc | September 10, 2007 12:35 PM

Interesting that Shulman's recipe that you give here does not include coriander seed; I made her ratatouille from Provencal Light this summer and added the coriander, but I confess I didn't like it much...

Posted by: Reine de Saba | September 10, 2007 12:47 PM

Kim,

I don't understand the directions after you have roasted the eggplant in the oven. Are you supposed to finish cooking on the stove or in the oven? If on the stove (which is how I have always seen it) then, why do you use a casserole?

Posted by: minniwanca | September 10, 2007 2:52 PM

Minniwanca, Shulman's recipe suggests that you finish cooking on top of the stove. Reason for casserole (or Dutch oven) is because it's deeper, can hold more, but reason she puts eggplants in oven in the first place is to minimize amount of oil to cook up eggplants, which is a plus in my book.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | September 10, 2007 2:58 PM

How can I tell if my casserole dish is safe to use on a stove top? Are there certain brands or types of materials that are guaranteed not to crack/explode (as I've heard Pyrex sometimes does)?

Posted by: Casserole Coward | September 10, 2007 3:49 PM

a neighbor made a ratatouille like dish; eggplant, tomatoes and chick peas. i tried it but i included mushrooms, onions, & garlic. very tasty.

Posted by: quark | September 10, 2007 4:29 PM

I've been a big fan of the dish, never more so than after seeing the movie this summer. I used to make the Cooks Illustrated version, which is quite close to that given in this blog. The dish from the movie is an interesting take on Ratatouille. It avoids my least favorite parts of making ratatouille: sweating the eggplant and getting the oven up to 500 degrees. Not fun during the summer. You can Google Confit Byaldi for the full recipe, but this is it in essence.

Make a sauce from roasted olive oil, onions, garlic, some spices, roasted bell peppers, and tomatoes. Coat the bottom of a roasting pan with the sauce and top with a layer of alternating slices of eggplant, summer squash, zucchini, plum tomatoes. The veggies are layered such that each slice mostly covers the previous slice (like this: \\\\\\\\\\).

Tightly cover and bake for 2 hours at 250, uncover and cook for another 30 minutes. Top with balsamic vinegar and herbs and enjoy! The whole thing can be thrown together in about an hour.

Posted by: Fairlington Blade | September 10, 2007 5:12 PM

Kim, can you give a weight or some dimensions for what you mean by "large" zucchini? I was just given a gigantic zucchini from my neighbor's garden, and I'd think it far surpasses anyone's version of "large." Thanks!

Posted by: Jen | September 10, 2007 5:28 PM

I've posted this to the discussion once -- GRILL!
Cut the onions in half, slice the eggplant 3/4" thick, and halve or quarter the squash. Grill everything except the tomatoes, until they are al dente, and then combine on the stove top for about 15 minutes with herbs and a splash of tomato juice. Less oil and less heat in the kitchen, plus grilled eggplant seems to have a better, firmer texture.

Posted by: John | September 11, 2007 8:40 AM

I'm lazy, so I use roasted canned tomatoes (great, unique flavor) and zap it in the crock pot. Super easy, and the result is wonderful for a midweek dinner! Kalamata olives and feta are a nice way to finish off.

Posted by: Lazy cook | September 11, 2007 10:28 AM

Also throw in a couple of tablespoons of capers at the end. Spectacular!

Posted by: Yoki | September 11, 2007 11:54 AM

In my experience, the texture of the zucchini becomes mushy when frozen, so I generally leave it out for freezer batches. Otherwise, this freezes very well and provides a welcome reminder of summer in mid-winter, served over pasta, broiled chicken, whatever.

Posted by: Nelson | September 11, 2007 2:01 PM

Casserole -- the reference here to a "casserole" is not the same as the glass/pyrex casserole dish you use in the oven. the casserole you need for this recipe is a heavy pot w/lid (le crueset is quite popular... and expensive, but there are others). they're great for soups, braising, etc. please don't put your pyrex on the stovetop!

Posted by: WDC | September 11, 2007 5:06 PM

I like to make a baked ratatouille using eggplant, zukes, yellow crook necks, onions and tomatoes. All ingredients are thinly sliced and pan sauteed or cubed and grilled. I like to put the veggies in a colander to let the juices drain off. I save the juices for later rice dishes or just drink it. So sweet. Then I layer the onions, zucchini, crook necks, basil leaves, scattering of salt and cayenne, eggplant, tomatoes, thyme and guyere cheese on top. Bake for 1.5 hours at 325. I like the rich almost sweet flavors. It freezes beautifully for winter. Best reheated in the oven.

Posted by: David | September 11, 2007 11:15 PM

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