Ratatouille is a bowl of summer's bounty, elevated beyond the sum of its parts, through the magic of heat and time. Sadly, out of season ingredients, and bad preparations have left most people craving the Disney flick over the summer stew from Provence.
If you've ever had a good ratatouille though, it's a memory that's hard to forget. Large chunks of tender vegetables, impregnated with the ripe flavors of the summer sun. Juicy, but not watery, and with a rich savoriness that tastes more sinful than its virtuous ingredients indicate.
So what's become of this French classic? Perhaps the biggest culprit is the use of poor quality ingredients. To paraphrase a computer nerd maxim: if you put garbage in, you get garbage out. The tomatoes in particular need to be grown in good quality soil and ripened by the summer sun, not some gas chamber in a distribution warehouse.
The olive oil is also important because in ratatouille, it's not merely a lubricant to keep the vegetables from sticking to the pan, it's a seasoning. Use a bold cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil that tastes like the olives it comes from, not some cheap hack that misguidedly proclaims its "light taste"
But most importantly, ratatouille needs time. Time for the garlic, onions and bell peppers to caramelize, making them sweet and developing the lip-smacking umami that seasons the rest of the stew. Time for the thick-cut vegetables to soften, and of course time to coax the essence from each ingredient, allowing them to mingle and reduce before being reabsorbed by the zucchini and eggplant.
Traditional preparations have you cook each vegetable in separate pots, tending to each vegetable's needs before bringing them together at the end. While I'm sure there are some traditionalists reading this that are going to be shooting death rays from their eyes at the screen, that's not how I make my ratatouille.
I use one pot to do everything. It's not just that it's easier, the results taste better because all the vegetables have plenty of time to get acquainted in the pot. I also don't peel or seed the tomatoes. If you have time, you're welcomed to peel them, but don't remove the seeds. Contrary to traditional wisdom, the mucilaginous membranes around the seeds contain a high concentration of glutamic acids. By tossing the seeds, you're also losing taste.
For my last bit of culinary blasphemy, I prefer using Asian eggplants such as Japanese or Chinese ones in ratatouille because they have less seeds and tend to be less bitter. They also make nice little rondelles because of their narrow diameter.
If for some odd reason you find yourself with leftovers, try poaching an egg in the ratatouille the next morning for breakfast. I promise you won't be disappointed.
- Add the olive oil and garlic to a large heavy bottomed pot, like a Le Creuset and sauté over medium heat until the garlic starts to brown and becomes very fragrant.
- Turn down the heat to low and then add the onions and bell peppers. Cover the pot with a lid and let the onions wilt, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. Remove the lid and sauté the vegetables until all the water released has evaporated and the onions start to brown.
- Add the tomatoes, cover the pot with the lid, and simmer until the tomatoes are soft and have released a lot of liquid.
- Add the eggplants, zucchini, parsley, basil, thyme, salt and pepper. Stir to combine and then cover with a lid and allow the vegetables to cook until tender (30-40 minutes), stirring occasionally.
- When the vegetables are soft, remove the lid and let the ratatouille continue to simmer until the excess liquid has evaporated and the stew is nice and thick. Adjust the salt and pepper to taste and serve with crusty bread.