Summer vegetables, Provence-style
Slender Asian eggplant is the star of this tasty ratatouille. (Fotolia.com / July 17, 2013)
But I have a good reason to wait. Those seasonal vegetables also make up most of the ingredients list for one of my favorite dishes right now: ratatouille.
Nowadays, most people recognize that word because it's the title of a popular animated film about a rat who dreams of culinary stardom. But food lovers know it really refers to a classic vegetable stew from Provence in the south of France, the name coming from a local word meaning "to toss." That's an apt description for the way cubes of summer vegetables are simply tossed together in a pan and left to stew gently until they soften and their delicious juices mingle.
I certainly made, and ate, a lot of ratatouille in my early 20s when I cooked under the great, now late, chef Raymond Thuilier at the Michelin three-star restaurant L'Oustau de Baumaniere in the village of Les Baux-de-Provence. But, really, you don't have to be a three-star chef to make great ratatouille. All it takes is good produce and a little patience.
Start with a visit to the farmers' market, or a supermarket with a good produce section. Look first for summer's finest tomatoes, deep red, juicy and sweet. Move on to the bell peppers; I like to use yellow ones, not only because they're sweeter than green peppers but also because they add another color. Then, on to the eggplants and zucchini, looking for smaller, more slender specimens, which have fewer, less pronounced seeds. Don't forget some fresh herbs to scent the stew -- fresh basil and thyme -- and also onions, green onions (for garnish), garlic, and olive oil if they're not already in your pantry.
Apart from salt and pepper and some sherry vinegar, that's it. And the only prep you need to do is cutting up those starring vegetables, making sure the pieces are uniform for even cooking and more attractive results. Then, get started, and your ratatouille will be done in about half an hour.
The stew is as versatile as it is easy. Try it hot as a side or chunky base for grilled seafood, poultry, or meat. Or enjoy it cold on a bed of baby greens as an appetizer or salad, adding a touch more olive oil and good vinegar to highlight its flavors.
However you serve it, you'll savor summer at its best -- all while solidifying your own reputation as a culinary star.
Serves 4 to 6
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound yellow onions, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 pound slender Asian-style eggplant, trimmed and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 pound yellow bell peppers, halved, stemmed, seeded, deveined, and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 pound sun-ripened red tomatoes, cored, halved, seeded, and cut into 1-inch cubes
1/2 pound zucchini, trimmed and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
Leaves of 1 sprig fresh thyme
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
2 tablespoons sherry wine vinegar
4 to 6 fresh basil leaves, stacked, rolled lengthwise, and cut crosswise into thin strips
3 green onions, white parts only, thinly sliced
In a large, heavy nonreactive skillet or saucepan, heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and saute, stirring frequently, until it turns translucent, about 5 minutes.
Stir in the eggplant, bell peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, garlic, thyme, salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pan, and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking.
Transfer the mixture to a large nonreactive bowl and leave at room temperature until cooled. Gently stir in the vinegar and the remaining olive oil. Taste and adjust the seasonings, if necessary, with more salt and pepper.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate until serving time. Remove from the refrigerator about half an hour before serving time.
For a side dish to a hot main course, gently reheat the ratatouille in a nonreactive saucepan. For an appetizer or a salad, serve at room temperature. Either way, transfer the ratatouille to a serving bowl or individual plates and sprinkle it with the basil and green onions.