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.
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.
Adapted from "Ready When You Are" by Martha Rose Shulman
1 1/2 pounds eggplant (1 large globe eggplant or 3 thinner Asian eggplants)
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.
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.
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