Late summer in Prescott, walking the Farmer’s Market, I see the thick peppers, luscious tomatoes, purple-striped eggplant and summer squash in abundance, and I ask myself, “What can I do with all this lovely produce?” It’s time to gather them home: time to make ratatouille!
Ratatouille is a 200-year-old peasant dish from the sunny Mediterranean countryside of Provençe in France that showcases these abundant late-summer vegetables and herbs — tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, summer squash, basil, parsley, onions and garlic. Ratatouille celebrates them with unpretentious style in a simple stovetop stew. It’s delicious hot or cold, served with crusty bread, over pasta or polenta, or as a side dish. Think of it as the summer captured.
The Veggies: Tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, summer squash
Gardens are bursting with these ingredients right now. Tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and summer squash are in season, which means best prices and best quality. Look for fully ripe (maybe a little overripe) tomatoes, firm eggplant and squash, and thick, meaty bell peppers (any color, but I love red!). You’ll need about a pound and a half of each, more or less — this is a method, not a recipe, so don’t fret over exact weights.
Cut the tomatoes finely, transferring them, including the juice, into a small bowl. Then cut everything else into roughly one-inch pieces. Put the eggplant in a separate bowl and the other ingredients on a baking sheet in separate piles.
Toss the eggplant with a teaspoon of salt. Mix it around and set it aside for about 20 minutes while you prepare everything else. The salt sucks water out of the eggplant (a process called osmosis), making the resulting cooked eggplant firmer, creamier, more savory and less oily.
Aromatics: Onion, garlic, basil, parsley
Here comes the flavor! Chop about 1-1/2 pounds of onion (any color). Finely mince six fat cloves of garlic. Pile these on the baking sheet.
Basil is at its best right now. It’s a strong herb with a tender soul. It loses flavor and turns bitter if bruised or dried. Handle it gently.
Basil is such a star in this dish that it is added twice. Tie three sprigs of basil together with some cotton string, making a basil bouquet. Then take six leaves, stack them up and, using a sharp knife, gently slice them very thinly. This is called chiffonade. Put both the bouquet and the chiffonade on your baking sheet. The bouquet will be added early to flavor the base, and you’ll sprinkle the chiffonade on top for a bright, fresh finish.
Parsley completes the garnish flavor, earthy and green. Unlike basil, it’s tough. You can chop it finely without affecting the flavor. Do that, three tablespoons. Put the parsley on your baking sheet.
The Foundation: Olive oil, red wine, salt and pepper
Good, everyday olive oil (about 1/4 cup) and any bold, dry red wine (about a cup) are basics in this recipe. The oil and wine carry flavor and add depth. Salt balances and ties flavors together. Cook without salt and you’ll notice things taste flat or sour or greasy. Add salt “to taste,” which means you have to taste and taste and taste until you taste “delicious.”
Finally, black pepper adds an earthy note; use freshly ground or coarsely cracked. When herbs or spices are finely ground, the aromatic oils are exposed to air, where they evaporate and lose potency.
Now you have your mise en place – a French culinary phrase which means “put in place” or “gathering.” It refers to the setup required before cooking.
Add vegetables one at a time, the slow-cooking ones first and the fast-cookers last to avoid overcooking and preserve their unique flavors and textures.
First dry out the eggplant. Roll it up in a dish towel and squeeze gently. For this dish you’ll need a wide skillet that holds eight cups comfortably. Use cast iron if you can. Heat the pan over medium heat. Add two tablespoons of olive oil and the eggplant. Stir and turn regularly until the eggplant is lightly browned. This process concentrates flavors and caramelizes sugars. We don’t think of vegetables as having sugar, but they do. The result is a complex, nutty flavor and rich brown color. Remove the eggplant from the pan and set aside.
Continue over medium heat using the same pan. Add two more tablespoons of olive oil, then the garlic and onions. Stir continuously until they are golden (also caramelized). Add summer squash and stir regularly till lightly browned. Add the chopped peppers and continue stirring until they show tinges of browning. The caramelizing is finished.
Next add the tomatoes, wine, big pinches of salt and pepper, and the basil bouquet. Cover and simmer for ten minutes. Finally, stir in the eggplant. Cover and simmer a few more minutes. The vegetables should be coated with a viscous sauce, halfway between runny and dry. Add a bit of water or cook a bit longer until you have this texture. Remove the basil bouquet.
Almost ready! Taste and adjust salt and pepper. Taste again. Go for perfection. You’re not only producing a really delicious ratatouille, you’re practicing taste training. Serve sprinkled with the chiffonade of basil and the chopped parsley.
You’ll find this recipe in traditional form below, along with Maria Mancini’s creamy polenta recipe to go with it!
Serves 8. Thanks to Chef Alice Waters for inspiration.
4 tablespoons olive oil
About 1-1/2 pounds of each:
Eggplant, cut into 1" pieces
Bell pepper (any color), cut into 1" pieces
Summer squash or zucchini, cut into 1" pieces
Onion, medium chop
Ripe tomatoes, finely cut
4-6 cloves (about 2 teaspoons) finely chopped garlic
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
About 1 cup of dry red wine
3 stems of basil tied together into a basil bouquet, and 6 additional basil leaves finely sliced
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
Prepare the vegetables and put them on a baking sheet in separate piles. Put the tomatoes in a small bowl. Put the eggplant in another small bowl.
Toss the eggplant with 1 teaspoon of salt and set aside for 20 minutes. Roll the eggplant in a dish towel and lightly squeeze. Heat 2 Tablespoons of olive oil in a wide skillet. Cook the eggplant until lightly browned, turning frequently. Remove and set aside.
In the same pan, over medium heat, add 2 tablespoons of oil. Sauté onion and garlic until golden. Add summer squash/zucchini and sauté a few minutes longer. Until lightly brown. Add bell pepper and stir until they are also lightly browned.
Add tomatoes, red wine, the basil bouquet and a generous pinch of salt and pepper. Cover and simmer about 10 minutes. Finally add eggplant. and continue the simmer for a few minutes longer. All vegetables should be soft and they should be coated with a nice viscous sauce, not watery, but not dry. Add more water if needed or turn up heat to evaporate extra liquid. Remove basil bouquet.
Taste and adjust salt and pepper seasoning. Serve garnished with finely sliced basil leaves and parsley.
Serve hot or cold, as a main or side dish, or with crusty bread, polenta, pasta, or rice. Otherwise poach an egg, chicken or fish in the sauce or add some cooked white beans. Freezes well.
"I love ratatouille over Maria Mancini’s creamy polenta. Polenta takes about 30 minutes to make, so start it first. And I always, always make extra because it’s great the next day for lunch over pasta, or for dinner with grilled fish. Or freeze some ratatouille so you can capture and enjoy the taste of late summer abundance all winter long." — Molly
4 cups water
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt
1 cup dry whole grain cornmeal or polenta
4 tablespoons olive oil or butter
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese
Bring water and salt to a boil in a large saucepan that can hold 6-8 cups. Add polenta gradually, sifting it through your fingers and stirring constantly. Stir in half the oil/butter. Stir regularly, over low heat. scraping pan as needed, for about 30 minutes. The mixture will be thick. Stir in remaining oil/butter and cheese. Pour portions onto individual plates and top with sauce or pour into a pan. It will firm up as it cools, but can be easily reheated. Refrigerate to store.
Chef Molly Beverly is Prescott's leading creative food activist and teacher. Photos by Gary Beverly.