Down East 2013 ©
The French know how to work magic with fresh vegetables. I’ll never forget sitting in a small café in a tiny seaside village on the coast of southern France and being served ratatouille as a main course. To say that it was a “stew” of eggplant, onions, tomatoes, zucchini, herbs, and fragrant olive oil misses the point entirely. It was something altogether new. It transcended any description of what it might mean to take four amazingly fresh seasonal vegetables and mix them together over low heat to draw out the best of each. The dish was silky and smooth, sweet and savory. It forever changed the way I thought about what a vegetable dish could be. There was no craving for meat or poultry or fish. This ratatouille, washed down with a local crisp, cold rose, satisfied every culinary craving. The crusty French bread didn’t hurt.
Here in Maine it’s that time of year when gardeners practically beg you to take some of their zucchini. Eggplants and onions are more precious and this year tomatoes are like red gold. When my garden produced its first three eggplant last week, alongside the first red tomato, I thought about that ratatouille. I wanted to recreate that silky texture and perfect balance of flavors, but it was too hot and sticky to spend hours in the kitchen sautéing each vegetables and letting it braise all day. So I wondered what would happen if I mixed all these gorgeous fresh vegetables in a big roasting pan and let them roast while I went out for a swim. Turns out roasting was a good choice. Very good, indeed. Give it a try. Let’s just say that if you open a good rose, sniff a bouquet of fresh basil and say merci for all this gorgeous hot August weather you just might be transported somewhere exotic and delicious.
Chop all your vegetables, toss them in a good roasting pan, and put them in the oven. It’s hot outside and the last thing you need is to hang out in a steamy kitchen with an oven at 425 degrees. So, quickly, leave the kitchen. Walk away. Come back in an hour and inhale. Aaah!
Serve the ratatouille hot, room temperature, or cold. Serve with good crusty bread or with pasta, rice, or cous cous. Or serve the ratatouille as a topping for grilled or sautéed fish, meat, or chicken.
The ratatouille will keep, covered and refrigerated, for about a week. (IF you can manage not to eat it all!) You can also place it in Mason jars, seal and process it for about 12 to 14 minutes and keep it all winter long.
2 large or 3 medium eggplants, peeled or unpeeled, and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 large or 3 medium zucchini, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 large or 3 medium onions, peeled and cut into ½-inch cubes
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
¼ coarsely chopped or julienned fresh basil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
About ¼ cup good olive oil
3 large or 4 medium tomatoes, cut into 1-inch cubes
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
In a large roasting pan, gently toss the eggplant, zucchini, onions, garlic, basil, a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper and half the oil. Roast on the middle shelf for 20 minutes. Remove the vegetables from the oven; reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees. Add the tomatoes and the remaining half of the oil, stir the mixture well, and place back in the oven.
Now walk away. Let roast for an hour. Stir the mixture once or twice; the vegetables should be very tender. The eggplant should be almost silky. Remove from the oven and taste for seasoning, adding more salt, pepper, and basil if needed. Let cool slightly and serve warm, room temperature, or cold. Serves 4 to 8.