It’s that time of year when the farmers’ markets are running at peak rpm and I’m cheek to jowl in the swarm of lovers of good food. And of its purveyors: I can only marvel at the human effort involved in getting past the hurdles provided by the whims of the elements, beyond the commitments to the land and the lifestyle, the soil preparation and seeding and planting, the nurturing and protection (with no assist from the Monsantos and their ilk), the harvesting…..beyond all of that to packing it into crates and into the truck or van (that has been known to break down on its way into the city), and setting up the tables at 7 a.m. And to do it with such grace and artistry. And a smile. Surely this is a labor of love.
And it’s that time of year when Ratatouille happens (almost spontaneously) because all of its ingredients are in the prime of their allure, and beckoning, and available. (They may be easy, but they’re not cheap!)
It isn’t so difficult to make what Waverley Root describes as “a characterless, uninspiring mess of pottage” if one follows the simple plan of throwing everything together and stewing for an hour or more. With a bit more effort the reward will be greater, the whole surpassing the sum of its parts. The alternative requires that each vegetable be initially cooked separately and then combined to consummate the alchemy.
Here are my guidelines…..
There will be oil. And it won’t be sparing. Ditto for the garlic. I neither bother to salt/sweat the eggplant, nor to peel the tomatoes. I find these practices hardly worth the effort. The reason I use grapeseed oil is that it can tolerate better the high temperature that I prefer to use for eggplant and zucchini in the interests of searing and caramelizing the exterior. I know this goes against the tradition, but I do add olive oil later in the game. If it better suits you, use olive oil throughout, but use it only on med-high and not full-out high heat.
Heat some grapeseed oil (about 1/4 to 1/3 cup) in a large heavy skillet on high heat. (Turn on the overhead fan.) Take a medium to large sized eggplant and cube it. Put it in the hot oil and flip with a spatula to try to coat the sides. This should be done quickly as the eggplant is a thirsty guzzler and doesn’t like to share. Put a lid on it. Turn the heat down a bit. Check it. Stir and flip. Cover. Nurse it thusly for perhaps another 10 minutes, and if by then (or sooner) you think it’s fork-tender, replace lid, and turn off heat. Allow to sit covered for another 5 min. This ensures that it won’t be al dente, which is a curse for eggplant. You may have to do this in two batches, depending on the size of eggplant and of the skillet.
Meanwhile, cut up some zucchini or summer squash (about 3 of them) to a similar size as the eggplant. Remove the eggplant to a large bowl. Add some more oil to the skillet, only a couple tablespoons here, as the squash takes up very little of it. Turn up to high and after a minute or so, add the squash. Flip and stir, coating with the oil. Put the lid on. Check after a few minutes, turning pieces as they brown. Do not overcook. Aim for golden on the outside without cooking all the way through. Turn off heat. Remove to the large bowl.
Now take some peppers (3, a red, a yellow, and a green) and chop. Heat 2 tbsp of olive oil in the skillet (and there’s probably some residual left in addition from the squash) on med-high heat. After a minute or so, throw in the peppers and stir. And throw in a large chopped onion or some shallots. Cover and stir again and cook just to al dente. Maybe five minutes.
Add to this some chopped tomatoes, at least 2 or 3 good sized ones. Stir, and after a minute, turn off heat. Remove to a large pot and add to this the other vegetables as well as about a cup of tomato sauce, a bay leaf, a fistful of fresh basil, chopped, and 2 or 3 large cloves of garlic, chopped.
Another fork in the road: you may now cook this on top of the stove, covered, stirring occasionally, for 20 to 30 minutes, perhaps adding a bit more tomato sauce if it seems to be losing too much moisture. Or you may, as I like to do, put it in a 350 degree oven for 45 min. to an hour (about), stirring occasionally. I cover it only for the first 20 minutes. When it is done to your liking, add more chopped fresh basil and minced garlic. And some more olive oil if you think it still needs it. Stir. Let sit a bit. Serve.
The great thing about ratatouille is that it goes nicely with so many things. Like chicken or fish. Eggs. Grains. Potatoes. Spaghetti squash dressed with garlic and cheese. In a sandwich. Let me know what you come up with. And enjoy your own labors of love!