This time of year normally sees an explosion of garden productivity. There are baskets of veg every day, mostly summer squash and tomatoes. This year has not been good in my garden, but then this is the first garden in this home. I have learned what not to do and made adjustments in the master plan accordingly. But for those who have been gardening in place for a while, you are probably in need of fresh recipe ideas.
Ratatouille is a versatile recipe. The name derives from the Occitan word ratatolha which is related to words for tilling and stirring and originally referred to a coarse stew. Dating to at least the 18th century, ratatouille was and still is the work horse in French summer kitchens, using up piles of produce to make a savory — and healthy! — meal. It is a favorite in our family. We toss whatever we have pulled out of the garden into a casserole heavy with tomatoes and redolent of herb and spice. My favorite herb mix is grey salt, white pepper, parsley, thyme, chervil, and summer savory. But I’ve used everything from traditional rosemary and tarragon to exotic flavors like lavender and garam masala.
The one constant is eggplant — because there is almost nothing else to be done with all those lovely aubergines. They don’t freeze well, not even in prepared meals. They don’t keep more than a week or so in the fridge. They can’t be canned without a pressure canner, and the extra effort is not rewarded. Eggplant makes a rather flavorless and flaccid preserve. And the one time I tried pickling, it turned to slime. So when there are eggplants — about the only thing that is productive in this, my first Vermont garden — there is ratatouille!
This version is by my son, Patrick, the true kitchen nerd in the family. I cook to eat; he cooks to cook. And being a math wizard, there is always an emphasis on precision. His meals are beautiful!
1 large Italian eggplant 2 red bell peppers 2 yellow summer squash Mirepoix (2-3 outer stalks celery, 1-2 long carrots, 1 medium onion — all finely diced) 1 large (28oz) can crushed tomatoes 1 TBS tomato paste (optional) 2 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed Fresh sprigs of thyme Salt and pepper as needed
Preheat oven to 375°F.
Sauté the mirepoix in olive oil. Once it is beginning to soften, add the garlic. Sauté until it all turns golden in the hot oil. If you want a more tomato-y sauce, add the tomato paste and stir until the vegetables are thoroughly coated.
Add crushed tomatoes and simmer. Let this tomato sauce reduce by half. The slower the cooking process, the deeper the flavor.
While the tomato sauce simmers, use a mandoline to make 1/8” thick slices of the eggplant, bell pepper, and summer squash.
Lay the eggplant in a single layer in a shallow, non-reactive baking dish or large plate and sprinkle it lightly with salt. Let sit about 15 mins, rinse, and pat very dry.
In a baking dish, make a layer of the tomato sauce, reserving a few tablespoons for topping. Alternating eggplant, squash, and pepper, create shingles (edge-down) concentrically around the pan, spiral or bulls-eye rings.
Brush the top of the shingled veggies with the reserved tomato sauce.
Drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and arrange the thyme on top. (Reserve a couple sprigs for garnish.)
Cut parchment paper to make a lid on the ratatouille.
Bake for 40 – 50 minutes or until the veggies have soaked up the sauce, softening but not losing their structure.
Let rest for at least 15 minutes.
Garnish with remaining thyme.
This recipe makes for an aesthetically pleasing mix of colors, but feel free to use whatever summer veg you have on hand. That is the point, after all.
Similarly, you can use the canned tomato called for in this recipe — or you could use up those garden tomatoes. Put a dozen medium-sized, skinned sauce tomatoes (Roma, San Marzano, Amish Paste, etc) in a bowl and use an immersion blender on them until they are pulpy and nearly liquified. Measure out 3.5 cups of this tomato pulp to equal one 28oz can of crushed tomato. Tomato paste can be made from from whatever remains of the pulp by cooking it down over low heat for a few hours. Obviously, this should happen maybe a day or so before making ratatouille. I usually have containers of ongoing pulp and paste in the fridge all summer. But sadly not this one…
©Elizabeth Anker 2021