If you love the idea of savory summer vegetables steaming in a deep bowl, the scent of herbs and spices rising to your nostrils, you’ve likely tried your hand at ratatouille. But, for as many delicious summer stews you’ve enjoyed, you’ve probably also faced many a limp blob of hot, mushy mass inappropriately called ratatouille.
Perhaps it was served to you. Perhaps you made it. Either way, if you’re looking for some help putting away all of those eggplants, zucchinis and basil bunches popping up in your garden just about now, then welcome. This is all about how to avoid lifeless ratatouille—from a gal who has had (and made) her fair share of both good and bad varieties. Before I launch into the finest recipe for ratatouille I’ve discovered, let me first admit that I hate recipes. The raison d’être of this blog, is in fact, my distaste for recipes—especially where things like ratatouille are concerned.
When I started this site, I wanted to create a place where it would be OK to riff a bit, because, even after years of cooking, I never fail to look at a recipe and wonder what I can change about it. When I open a cookbook, I glance at the ingredients, jot them down, and proceed to modify the steps involved to suit my fancy. Often this happens much later in the game—as in, when things are already simmering, boiling or stewing. There are always, always, at least two or three aspects of a recipe that I don’t appreciate and am not interested in following, and sometimes I change my mind at the last minute.
Because of this particular character trait, (good cooks would likely call it a major character flaw) I’ve made some pretty wilted ratatouilles in summers past. Nothing is worse than overcooked vegetables. Except, perhaps, wasting pounds of good produce. But still, every garden yields different results, every farmer’s market has different colors and shapes to offer. I can’t just follow every detail of a prescribed dish… at times like these, it’s actually impractical. That said, I’ve learned that some rules cannot be broken: when we cook, and especially when we bake, there are processes to abide. The trick is knowing where you can improvise, and where you must honor the author’s wisdom. I really do believe that once you learn some basic techniques—both in cooking and in baking—you can execute something right, but add your own touches as you go. That is the dream, at least.
Alice Water’s advice from “The Art of Simple Food,” was a great jumping off point for my summer stew ambitions in 2006—the year I finally got ratatouille right. Despite what I’ve said about her in the past, Waters does a slightly ingenious thing in the layout of her books: she lists the ingredients of her dishes with the steps in between. That way, you go along, adding things in clearly laid out steps, rather than staring at a long ingredient list separate from an even longer list of directions—which is, unfortunately, the way I write my recipes. Oh dear. Anyway, it was exactly this style of authorship that illustrated the importance of steps in the ratatouille process—even if you vary your ingredients a bit. Sometimes I feel like using different herbs, more onions, fewer peppers, a new type of zucchini, etc. etc.
Waters’ recipe allowed me to experiment while honoring the integrity of the flavor and consistency of fresh vegetables. In other words, she made my dreams come true. No wilted zucchini, no pulverized eggplant, no rubbery tomatoes resulted when I proceeded in a certain way—even if I did make my own substitutions. Ultimately, dear Alice taught me a great lesson: it all boils down to the order of things.
You must cook the eggplant first, then remove it, allowing it to soak up enough olive oil to have flavor and heft, but protecting it from your whirling wooden spoon and from the hard-bodied peppers and squash that might otherwise turn it into mash during the cooking process. Then, you must add onions; garlic and herbs; peppers; zucchini and tomatoes in that order, as it coincides with how long each vegetable will take to cook down to an equivalent consistency. When you’ve done it right, each vegetable will retain its integrity, suspended in a warm, salty and basil-tasting tomato sauce.
Finally, something all good cooks know, but that must be said: make sure that all of the pieces of produce you put in the pot are equal in size. That will ensure even cooking even if your ingredients are varied in consistency.
Le voila, un ratatouille parfait… there are so many possible versions, but a few essential steps.
Adapted from “The Art of Simple Food”
(Do this in a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat. Cut ALL vegetables into ½ inch pieces.)
3 Italian eggplant, sliced, salted and left to drain 20 minutes
Large can San Marzano tomatoes
2 chopped, red onions
4 tbsp olive oil, divided (plus more if necessary)
6 diced cloves of garlic
20 basil leaves, divided
1 tsp red chili flakes
2 chopped peppers (red, yellow, green or orange)
5 summer squash or zucchini (mix and match as you choose)
Additional herbs of your choice
Sauté eggplant in 2 tbsp olive oil until tender and golden, about 10 minutes.
Use juice from the canned tomatoes to deglaze pan, scraping brown bits into the eggplant mixture as you cook them—chances are they will start to brown the pan before they are cooked, and you don’t want to burn them or lose the flavor of the brown bits. Once cooked, transfer eggplant to a bowl.
Pour remaining tablespoons of olive oil into the pan to sauté onions. Cook until golden and translucent, about 8 minutes.
Add garlic, about 10 basil leaves and red chili flakes to the onions and stir a few minutes.
Add chopped peppers and cook until just softened, stirring constantly.
Add zucchini, and cook until golden and just softened, stirring constantly.
Add remaining tomato juice and tomatoes.
Season with herbs of your choice (or just salt and pepper) and cook another 3 minutes.
Add eggplant and cook another 10 minutes until vegetables are soft, but not insubstantial. If some remain too al dente, cover pot and simmer a few extra minutes.
As a side note, I like to serve this with a grilled cheese sandwich, preferably one made from Anima goat-cheese Gruyère on a toasted French baguette. For those of us working without a Panini maker, it’s easy enough to flatten out a thick sandwich like this between two piping hot skillets and a couple of pats of butter.