Martha+Tom

Time to Make Ratatouille

Eighty degree weather notwithstanding, I can’t shake the feeling that summer is soon to end and that a short fall will in no time at all be heralding in dark, cold winter. But as far as the farmers’ market is concerned, these fears are unfounded: fall might be around the corner, but there is still an abundance of ripe summer produce. In fact, with eggplants and summer squash, tomatoes, onions, red peppers and herbs all in season now is the time for ratatouille, the Provençal vegetable stew.

Ratatouille

When I am looking to make French food, I always turn first to Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking (I am inordinately proud of my first American edition—thanks Mom and Dad), a shining example among the many books that treat the subject of French cooking. On ratatouille, David says:

There are any amounts of versions of this dish, the variations being mainly in the proportions of each vegetable employed, the vegetables themselves being nearly always the same ones: aubergines, sweet peppers, onions, tomatoes, with courgettes sometimes being added and occasionally potatoes as well. Some people add mushrooms, but this is a rather pointless addition because they get completely lost in the mass of other vegetables. Garlic is optional, but the cooking medium must be olive oil.

To make a dish of ratatouille sufficient for about eight people, the ingredients are 3 medium-sized onions, 3 large aubergines, 3 large sweet red peppers, 3 courgettes [zucchini], 4 large tomatoes, 2 cloves of garlic, a few coriander seeds, fresh or dried basil if available, or parsley, 2 coffee-cups (after-dinner size) of olive oil. (242)

The first thing was to deal with the eggplant (ahem, aubergine) and summer squash, specifically with their overabundance of moisture. To get rid of some of their extra liquid, I sliced 3 long, spindly japanese eggplant and 4 thin, bright-yellow summer squashes into 1/4″ rounds on the mandoline (easily my favorite new kitchen tool this year). I then tossed them with a teaspoon of salt and spread everything out on a cooling rack set over a sheet pan to drain (you can also use a colander, but I feel spreading the vegetables out over a cooling rack helps them to drain more effectively). After an hour, I pressed the vegetable slices firmly with an absorbent towel to push out as much moisture as possible. A soggy ratatouille won’t do!

Salting Sliced Squash & Eggplant

With the eggplant and squash prepped, I was ready to start cooking. I first sautéed three sliced onions in a generous amount of olive oil (not quite as generous as two teacupfuls, after-dinner or otherwise) until the onions were soft but not browned. To this I added the eggplant, squash and 3 finely chopped bell peppers. I cooked this mixture covered over medium-low heat for 40 minutes.

While the eggplant, squash, peppers and onions were stewing away I peeled and seeded 10 roma tomatoes (I had heirlooms from the market but it seemed a shame to cook them) and chopped them fine. Per Elizabeth David’s suggestion I also ground up a few coriander seeds and added them to the tomatoes. After the prescribed 40 minutes of cooking, I added the tomatoes and coriander to the pot with the eggplant, squash, onions and peppers and let it cook, mostly covered, for another 20 minutes while the tomatoes softened.

After the hour of cooking, I used a spoon to try the broth that had developed. What an amazing taste of late summer! The broth was rich, earthy and even very sweet. The vegetables really required no additional seasoning, but I added a little salt to brighten the flavor even more.

Just before serving, I mixed in 1/3 cup of basil chiffonade and 1/4 c of minced parsley. I only just realized that David suggests using one or the other, but really, who could choose?

One essential accompaniment for eating ratatouille is plenty of crusty bread to use to mop up all the juices. Given the farmers’ market theme of this lunch my dining companions and I were happy to indulge in a delicious and culturally appropriate pain de campagne from Brett of Real Bread.

Bread

And while I couldn’t bear to cook my heirloom tomatoes, neither could I resist eating them immediately. They were typically sweet, acidic and tomato-ey in a salad with cucumber and goat cheese. I added a little olive oil and vinegar, but the tomato juice itself is dressing enough.

Heirloom Tomato Salad

Ratatouille is such an ideal dish for this time of year. For one thing, it is a good way to use all that zucchini/summer squash and eggplant that you are feeling so guilty about not eating yet. More importantly, it is a dish of great simplicity that depends entirely on the quality of its ingredients. For some people French cooking has the reputation of being highly technical and focused on transforming raw ingredients into something entirely new—the English used to accuse the French of inventing sauces as a way of disguising bad ingredients buried underneath. But French cooking understands—along with many other culinary traditions— that dishes will only be as good as the ingredients they started with. For something as straightforward as ratatouille, the phrase “garbage in, garbage out” very much applies. Luckily, the produce available in farmers’ markets right now is about as far from garbage as you can get.

There’s really a lot in ratatouille’s favor: it’s simple, it’s hearty, it’s full of flavor, it’s even vegan! About the only downside I can think of is that it can only be made at this time of year, when the peak seasons of its various parts coincide. All the more reason to enjoy it while you can.

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4 comments on “Time to Make Ratatouille”

  1. Linda 14 September, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    We had a true dining experience in sharing this ratatouille, salad and bread with you and Martha on Saturday. It was a delicious treat and motivated me to make it at home. Thank you for your creative culinary efforts.

  2. Amy 16 September, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    Interesting perspectives on the pictures, Tom and Martha–really attractive and unusual. I loved seeing all those squash/eggplant slices dominating the entire frame, and I had to look at the bread twice before I realized how that was taken. Cool. Besides, of course, the dinner sounded scrumptious.

  3. Tom 18 September, 2009 at 11:13 pm

    All credit for beautiful pictures goes to Martha. I sometimes get a good one, but only by chance. I’ll stick to cooking!

  4. Brett Laidlaw 19 September, 2009 at 4:04 pm

    Tom, Martha: I’ve taken a lot of pictures of Real Bread, but have never shot it “in the bag.” Very nice work, and an appetizing post, all around. Nice to see you both today.

    Brett

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