I love ratatouille, a French vegetable stew typically made with garlic, yellow summer squash and/or zucchini, onions, peppers, eggplant and tomatoes. This version, Easy Winter Ratatouille, is just once step removed from the original, time-honored version. It uses fresh vegetables with one exception – canned tomatoes. That one change makes it perfect for seasons when good fresh tomatoes are not available.
The vegetables are cooked in several stages so Easy Winter Ratatouille (like the original) is a bit time consuming to prepare. However, 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
A great vegetarian main dish or side for a meal when fresh tomatoes are not available.
- 2-3 cups zucchini (or zucchini/yellow squash mixed), cut into chunks
- 2 tablespoons flour, divided
- 2 cups eggplant, peeled & cut into chunks
- 5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 2 cloves garlic, mashed or finely chopped
- 1 cup yellow onions, chopped small
- 2 bell peppers, cut into small chunks
- 1 1/2 cups canned tomatoes with their juice Use good quality tomatoes. It matters.
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme Alternatively, 1 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme
- kosher or sea salt
- freshly ground pepper
- 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.
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in the skillet and add the mashed or chopped garlic and the chopped onions. 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.
Before starting the cooking, 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?
Use a non-stick pot or large pan. I use my enamel-covered cast iron. Do not use "plain" cast iron as acid from tomatoes reacts with cast iron.
A wooden spoon is great for scraping up the bits of flour that tend to stick on the pan at the early stages.
Serve with crusty bread, cheese, and a tossed salad for a light but satisfying brunch or dinner.