Queenie Cooks: Ratatouille

By Terry Harris

If you dearly love summer vegetables like I do, Ratatouille is the perfect dish for combining the tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, and bell pepper that suddenly are all ripening at once!

While the mystique of a French name might bring to mind some complicated, exotic culinary marvel, in reality, Ratatouille is basically just a French Provençal stew developed by poor farmers who probably just used whatever they had on hand! Because they traditionally cooked their left-over vegetables for hours, the dish became known as ratatouille – which literally means “stirred food.”

Today, ratatouille recipes, cooking times and methods can differ widely, but the basic ingredients remain the same – eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, and some fresh herbs.  And the end result is so versatile that it is delicious hot or cold, and can be served as a salad, antipasto, main dish, or side dish as a partner for grilled fish, chicken, or steak.

However you prepare your ratatouille, the combination of the eggplant’s complex darkness, the sweetly acid tomatoes, and the fragrant herbs combine to create a dish that, once tasted, is hard to forget. So last week when my sister asked if I would like to come over for some ratatouille that she was about to make from just-picked veggies from her garden, my only question was, “What time?”

There followed such a delightful and oh-so-delicious taste treat that I decided to share it with you this week!  The recipe here is basically the one she used, begun from a Silver Palate recipe which she halved, adjusted to fit amounts of various ingredients that she had, and if I had not watched her prepare it, I would swear she used a magic wand.

She swears that the key is using only really good olive oil – “the better the oil, the better the Ratatouille.” We ate it with some really good, fresh-made bread, which, to me, was a perfect combination.  However, even with its surprisingly complex combination of flavors, so it pairs will with many side dishes, appetizers, and desserts.

So, while it is loaded with so much vegetable and herb goodness that it does not require much to round out the meal, it is actually excellent with anything from a simple starch or grain like brown rice, barley, or pasta it can be equally perfect with a mushroom rice pilaf, salad with lemon dressing, homemade cornbread, or cheese grits!

Any fresh seasonal fruit can transform a ratatouille to something almost magical, whether you use it at the start of your meal or as a dessert, and grapes, peaches, or pears, sliced and lightly dressed in oil and balsamic can make either a lovely appetizer or a light dessert.

As for serving and eating ratatouille, although it is normally served as a side dish, you can easily make it a meal right by itself, served with rice, bread or pasta or even use it as a filling in savory crêpes or in an omelet.

And while it is perfect for vegetarians as prepared here, it is equally wonderful paired with diced chicken or any grilled meat. And it is delicious with the addition of just a little freshly grated cheese added just before serving.

While there are many variations on how it has made, I am sharing here the way my sister made it – which will be hard to beat.  She included some chopped fresh parsley and omitted the dill.  She also used canned tomatoes rather than fresh ones, and I can vouch or the fact that it all was wonderful.

I have even heard of preparing it without oil for those on a strict diet, but my sister insists that the real key is to use only very good olive oil.  And while I have not done a great deal of experimenting with ratatouille – yet – I promise if that is what made hers so tasty, she is exactly right! 

So ahead!  While all the delightful summer veggies are coming in, try your hand at putting together a nice ratatouille.  Bet you will love it, too!  Enjoy! 

 

Ratatouille

2 C best quality olive oil

2 small eggplants, about 2 pounds, cut into 1 1/2” cubes

1 teaspoon salt

2 medium white onions, peeled and coarsely chopped

2 medium-size zucchinis, washed, trimmed, quartered lengthwise and cut into 2” strips

1 medium-size green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, cut into ½” strips

1 medium-size sweet red pepper, stemmed, seeded, cut into ½” strips

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 C peeled, drained, canned tomatoes

3 oz tomato paste

1/8 C chopped fresh Italian parsley

1/8 C chopped fresh dill

1 Tablespoon dried basil

1 Tablespoon dried oregano

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1) Pour 1 C of the olive oil into a large skillet.  Add the eggplant, sprinkle with salt, and toss well.  Cover pan tightly with foil and simmer or 35 minutes, until eggplant is done, but not mushy.  Uncover and set aside.

2) In now empty skillet, heat remaining oil and sauté onions, zucchini, red and green peppers, and garlic over medium heat until wilted and lightly colored – about 20 minutes.  Add tomatoes, tomato paste, parsley, dill, basil, oregano, and black pepper.  Simmer 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

3) Add eggplant mixture and simmer for another 10 minutes.  Taste and adjust salt and pepper to taste.

4) Serve hot or at room temperature.

Makes 6 portions.