I love ratatouille, a French vegetable stew typically made with garlic, yellow summer squash and/or zucchini, onions, peppers, eggplant and tomatoes. The vegetables are cooked in several stages so it is a bit time consuming to prepare, but the reward is a fragrant and delicious vegetarian dish that you can serve hot, at room temperature, or even right out of the refrigerator. Because its flavors meld over time, ratatouille is an ideal dish to prepare in advance, then re-heat the next day, or bring to room temperature standing on the counter for an hour or two as you prepare dinner, a holiday brunch, or an open house table.
Juicy, ripe tomatoes are essential for ratatouille, both for flavor and the liquid in which the vegetables simmer. Until mid-November, I can usually get wonderful tomatoes at local farmers’ markets and even sometimes at grocery stores. As winter approaches, good fresh tomatoes are hard to find, so I normally put thoughts of ratatouille aside.
However, when I had a hankering for ratatouille this week, and no decent fresh tomatoes on hand or easily obtainable, I decided to substitute good quality canned tomatoes. That change put me into the mood to experiment further. Instead of using them in either of my “go to” ratatouille recipes, one from my ancient New York Times Cook Book edited by Craig Claiborne (1961 edition) and the other from Chef Patrice Olivon through my friend Rachel, I worked out a “mash up” recipe that takes elements from each of those, with my own twists. My official taste tester proclaimed this version delectable and just as good as those I previously relied upon.
Easy Winter Ratatouille (Approximately 4-5 cups)
Servings – 4-6 Cost - $4.50/less than $1.25 per serving
- 2 cloves garlic, mashed or finely chopped
- 1 cup yellow onions, cut into small but not tiny pieces
- 2-3 cups zucchini or zucchini mixed with yellow squash, cut into small chunks
- 2 cups eggplant, peeled and cut into small chunks
- 2 peppers any color, cut into small chunks
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 1½ cups good quality canned tomatoes and their juice
- 1½ teaspoon fresh or ½ teaspoon dried thyme
- Salt and pepper
- 5 tablespoons olive oil
- Cutting board
- Garlic press (optional)
- Vegetable peeler (optional - you can peel eggplant with a small knife if you are careful)
- 2 bowls
- Measuring spoons
- 1 cup measure
- Wooden spoon (this isn’t just a pitch for wooden spoons, which I do love; objectively wood works better than metal to scrape – and save – the delicious bits on the bottom of the pan without ruining your pan.
- Large, heavy skillet (pan with high sides) with a cover that fits tightly. The pan must be large enough to allow the squash and eggplant cubes to cook in a single layer.
- Coat the squash pieces in 1 tablespoon of flour by dumping the flour into a bowl with the squash and mixing them with your hands. Using the second bowl, do the same with the eggplant pieces. Add the eggplant to the squash and set aside.
- Put all the ingredients next to the pan on the stove, ready to go in at the proper moment. You remember the 10 Rules for Meal Preparation Success and mise en place, right?
- Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in the skillet and add the chopped onions and mashed or chopped garlic. Cook on medium heat, stirring occasionally for 3 – 5 minutes, until the onion is transparent.
- Add the chopped peppers. Cook at medium heat 4-6 minutes longer, stirring occasionally, until the peppers have softened. Remove the vegetables from the pan (I put them in the now-empty second bowl) and set aside.
- Raise the heat to medium-high and add the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Once the oil is hot but not smoking, add the squash and eggplant. Cook them for approximately 5 minutes, stirring to prevent the flour from burning too much and to cook all sides of the cubes. The flour may stick to the pan bottom, but over the next steps, you’ll be able to pull most or all of it off – and stir it back into the stew – with the wooden spoon.
- Add the peppers, onion, and garlic back into the pan. Sprinkle the thyme and lightly salt and pepper the mixture. Cover and cook under a medium-low heat for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. The tight cover is required so that the squash and eggplant “sweat” and the water recirculates back into the stir instead of evaporating off, which it would do if the cover is not tight.
- Uncover and raise the heat to medium. Add the canned tomatoes (gently opening them with the spoon), and their juice, bring the mixture to a simmer and cook it for 25-30 minutes at a low simmer. Add salt and pepper. The flavor of ratatouille deepens and improves if you let it sit (on the counter if you will serve it within a few hours or refrigerated if you will serve it the following day) for at least 3-4 hours.
Serve with crusty bread, cheese, and a tossed salad for a light but satisfying brunch or dinner.