Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Summer's Best Stew: Ratatouille

Ratatouille and creamy grits by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I've returned to the kitchen, my source for solace in the late summer. The light through the window is changing, it's amber coming through at a different angle, backlighting the spider web on the porch.

Spider web by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

My soul seeks comfort food, but my warm house isn't quite ready for day-long braises and Dutch ovens bubbling over with stewed chicken and bready dumplings. Ratatouille, thick with chunks of eggplant swimming in fresh tomato, I've found, speaks to my soul and lets me walk away from the table without needing a starch-induced nap.

Eggplants by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

There are at least two approaches to preparing ratatouille: the one-pot method, where each item is chopped and added to the pan gradually. This yields a tasty, but homogeneous stew. My preferred method requires roasting some of the vegetables, namely the eggplant, to give some textural variety to the final product. My recipe is evolving, first with the boilerplate recipe in the "Gourmet Cookbook," now tweaked by Francis Lam’s primer on Salon.com (previously published at Gourmet.com.) It is, to use Lam’s phrase, so good you’ll want to punch a hole in the wall (but please, don’t, somebody‘s mother will have to fix that.)

Redneck Ratatouille
I tend use whatever quantities of these vegetables I have on hand, given the general guidelines in the recipe. I’ve used roasted Poblano peppers and assorted banana and chili peppers instead of or in addition to the bell peppers. Just be mindful of the heat factor when cooking with the spicy peppers.

2 medium eggplant, peeled and diced into 1-inch pieces


1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 large garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

3 large onions, peeled, halved, each half cut into 4 wedges

2 medium zucchini, peeled and diced into 1-inch pieces

2 medium yellow crookneck squash, peeled and diced into 1-inch pieces

4 large tomatoes, cored and chopped

2 tablespoons tomato paste (optional)

2 bell peppers, cored, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces

A handful of fresh basil

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.

1. Eggplant prep: follow this step only if you have the large globe eggplants which tend to be bitter. If cooking with the smaller Asian eggplants, proceed to the next step. Set up a colander over a larger bowl and place eggplant in colander. Pour out about a tablespoon of salt onto the eggplant and toss. Let eggplant drain for about 30 minutes.

2. In a large oven-proof pot, preferably one with a lid, pour in all but about 3 tablespoons of oil and turn heat to medium. Add garlic and onion and bring to a bubbling boil. Let cook for about 30 minutes while you prep the remaining ingredients. Don‘t walk away, because, you know, it‘s a pot of boiling oil.

3. Heat oven to 450 and get out a half-sheet pan or a large cast-iron skillet. Pour eggplant and squash and zucchini out onto the pan (you may need to do this in batches), pour remaining three tablespoons oil and some salt and pepper on the vegetables and set in oven to roast for about 30 minutes. You’re looking for a touch of caramelly brown on the edges of the veg, not blackened.

4. Ok, now we have a pot of boiling oil and alliums on the stove and a pan of roasting squash and aubergine in the oven. It’s time to turn your attention to the tomatoes. In a food processor, puree the tomatoes and peppers. Add to the onion and garlic oil and continue to cook for another 30 minutes. Optional: if using tomato paste, you can add it to the pot with the tomatoes and peppers.

5. When tomato/onion/garlic/oil mixture is a rich red color, add in roasted squash/zuke/eggplant. Taste mixture for seasoning, then add salt, pepper and basil.

6. Turn oven to 300 and set Dutch oven with stew inside. Let ratatouille cook for at least one hour, and several more if you can. Remove pot from oven and let cool.

I serve ratatouille at room temperature over a bowl of creamy grits. Other choices are pasta such as rigatoni, or couscous, or polenta.

Text and images copyright 2010, Lucy Mercer.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a dreamy and handy recipe! And a great introduction.