Homestyle Ratatouille, the Way a Busy French Mother Would Make It
Early fall is a great time to make ratatouille. Not only are lots of ingredients needed for this dish fresh and plentiful during this season, but the weather has also cooled down enough for the cook to endure the tedium of chopping up mounds of vegetables and patiently stirring over a hot stove. In fact, I just made a large batch of ratatouille and find that there are still more leftover eggplants, tomatoes, and onions. Maybe time for another batch? They freeze very well, and it’s nice treat to defrost a serving-size portion of ratatouille during a hectic work week.
My husband Will and I are fans of Ratatouille the movie, but there is one detail that never sat right with us. Supposedly, the ratatouille recipe was one which reminded the acid-tongued Scrooge-like food critic of his own childhood and which recalled fond memories of eating his mother’s ratatouille. Yet the dish presented bore no resemblance to a ratatouille that a busy mother in the countryside would prepare. The casserole was filled with colorful slices of vegetables of similar sizes and widths very carefully alternating so as to create an aesthetically pleasing array of colors. What busy mother—anywhere!—would be preparing ratatouille that way?
While the cartoon ratatouille was beautiful, it certainly didn’t seem “homestyle.” When I think homestyle ratatouille, I picture intensely flavored gobbledygook of vegetables, too thick to be called a stew and too runny to be called a casserole. In short, I picture the recipe I make from Hay Day Country Market Cookbook (http://www.amazon.com/The-Hay-Country-Market-Cookbook/dp/0761100253).
You gotta love a recipe that starts by suggesting that you pour a cup (yes, a whole cup) of olive oil into a pan. Thus starts the recipe for one of my go-to fall side dishes. As always, I use more garlic and herbs than a recipe calls for, and I like the idea of including even more colors (and using whatever you have around). Thus, my ratatouille might have summer squash along with zucchini and eggplant, parts of orange and yellow peppers as well as red and green ones. Otherwise, I follow Hay Day's recipe fairly closely and am presenting it here in steps, along with pictures of what each stage might look like.
Step 1 Needs: 1 cup olive oil; 1 large onion sliced; 4-5 garlic cloves minced
Heat olive oil in a heavy saucepan (preferably an enameled cast-iron pan like a Le Creuset), then add onions and garlic and sauté over medium heat for 5-10 minutes.
Step 2 Needs: 2 pounds combination of eggplant and zucchini/summer squash cup into ½ inch cubes; 2 large bell pepper of various colors (red, yellow, orange or green) cut into ½ inch pieces; 1 teaspoon salt
Into the pan, add vegetables and salt and cook down for about 15 minutes until eggplant pieces become translucent (like the picture above) and the rest of the vegetables are softened.
Step 3 Needs: 4 generous cups of fresh or canned chopped tomatoes; 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar; 1½ teaspoon chopped fresh thyme or ½ teaspoon dried thyme; 1/4 teaspoon hot sauce (to taste).
Add the above ingredients and bring to a simmer before reducing the heat to low. Partially cover and cook over a gentle simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour. The juice should not be too runny or too dry.
Step 4 Needs: 4 tablespoons fresh basil, chiffonaded; salt and pepper.
Add the fresh basil and then salt and pepper to taste. Voila!
Hay Day Country Market Cookbook suggests using the ratatouille as topping on bruschetta, over pasta, and as a sauce for grilled fish. All excellent suggestions.
I would also suggest something even simpler for a midweek lunch or dinner. I like to pack the ratatouille in 1-cup quantities and freeze the containers. Then, in the middle of winter, when paper grading has me scrambling for quick meals, I defrost a container and microwave some frozen nutty pre-cooked brown rice (available at, among other place, Trader Joe’s) and have a super simple and quick but nutritious and yummy meal.