Ratatouille reigned king on our recent trip to Provence. We had multiple incarnations of this classic summer vegetable stew. I love that there’s not one set recipe or method, it’s founded simply on using the best, freshest, seasonal vegetables you can find. Every kitchen in Southern France has their opinion on how best to prepare ratatouille; there is almost a mystical quality to how one approaches this humble dish.
One smart and funny chef we met on our trip told me he cooks each ingredient separately prior to mixing it all together. My interest was peaked and I did a little digging and guess what? Joel Robuchon says the same thing. This cooking method ensures that each ingredient in the dish retains its unique taste when you go to mix them together at the end.
One day home from our trip and I was in the kitchen ready to give this method a try. You might as well invite a friend over to help, because there’s some prep work here. A good friend (thanks, Justine), a great peeler and a sharp knife are all you need — well, a glass of wine and some tunes take it up a notch. The result was a delicious vegetarian/vegan meal, full of garden veggies that even my meat-loving husband enjoyed.
My favorite way to eat ratatouille is in a shallow bowl — like you would a winter stew— with a good crusty baguette . Yes, I’m back on the gluten train and it feels so good. Speaking of bread…where do think the best baguette is found in Santa Barbara? I’m currently at a loss.
You can also serve this summer stew over pasta, rice, or as a side with your favorite protein — from lamb to wild sea bass. Like most stews, leftovers are even better the next day. Try it on a baked potato or do as I did the other morning and stuff the leftovers in a omelet– Très bon!
Note: When you chop your veggies be sure to keep them big enough so they won’t disappear in the stew, you want it to be a little chunky.
1 1/2 pounds of vine ripe tomatoes (about 6-7), cored, peeled, seeded and medium dice
1 large onion, fine dice
1 cup olive oil
3 springs of thyme
2 large cloves of garlic
2 orange bell peppers, peeled, seeded and medium dice
1 pound small eggplants* (about 2), peeled and medium dice
3 small zucchini, large dice
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large skilled on medium heat, add 1/4 cup of olive oil and the onions. Stir and cook on medium heat for 10 minutes, careful not to brown — your cooking until they get translucent.
Next up, grate in the garlic using a microplane grater (or mince with a knife), add in the thyme and cook for 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes with one teaspoon of kosher salt. (You’re going to be using salt throughout the entire process, so be sure you’ve got your salt cellar stocked with good kosher salt before you start.) Continue to cook the tomatoes and onion mixture on low heat. They are going to cook while you prepare the rest of the veggies. Stir occasionally while you cook the other veggies.
Prepare a half-sheet pan by covering with paper towels— put it aside so it’s ready to go a little later on. On medium-high heat add two tablespoons of olive oil to a large sauté pan. When the oil starts to dance all over the pan add the bell peppers and a healthy pinch of salt or two. Cook about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon. When the peppers have begun to caramelize a bit and turn golden on the edges remove the pieces to the prepared cookie sheet using a slotted spoon.
Next it’s time to add the eggplant. Have you poured yourself a glass of wine, yet? You’ll need to add a few more tablespoons of oil even thought you should have some residual oil from the peppers left in the pan. The eggplant will need more oil compared to the other veggies. I usually use pour in about four tablespoons before adding the eggplant. Add the eggplant and season well with salt. Cook 10-12 minutes, stirring the diced pieces until they are uniformly cooked, caramelized and golden brown. The time for this may vary depending on the size of your diced eggplants chunks. When you think they are done, taste for seasoning and add more salt if needed. Remove the pieces using a slotted spoon to the prepared half sheet pan.
Now, add three more tablespoons of oil to the sauté pan (the heat should still be medium-high) and add the zucchini to the pan. Do not season with salt — wait until after the zucchini has cooked to salt or it will lose the juiciness and it will get soggy. After 8- 10 minutes remove to the prepared sheet pan and season well with salt. Go ahead and try each of your components and make sure every thing tastes great adding salt and pepper if needed.
Now add the whole kit and caboodle to the tomato mixture — stir to combine completely warming all of the ingredients. Cover, turn the heat off and serve when you are ready to eat, making sure to remove the springs of thyme. I like to let it sit for a little while to let all the flavors jive, then heat it up once more just before serving. Garnish with fresh thyme.
*Japanese eggplant is ideal if you can find it.