Use your garden surplus to make ratatouille!

In Recipies on July 17, 2012 at 2:28 pm

I’ve made ratatouille (Pronounced “ratta-TOO-we” for folks in Pella.) many times. Unfortunately, I always made it according to a cookbook instruction I’ve saved for years. The result was ‘okay’, but it just didn’t have any of the characteristics that ratatouille-lovers always carry on about when making the Provençal staple.

My ratatouille always seemed a bit bland and a bit mushy. I began to wonder if the dish was not for me. Some cooks bake their versions and some cook them on the stovetop. I tried both and got the same rather bland mush.

I was about to give up.

One of my cooking idols, Chef Jacques Pepin, insists on cooking its ingredients at the same time and I emulated his style. But, any number of ratatouille purists insist that individual cooking is best. So, I was bound to try it.

When a friend offered us a few spare zucchini (home gardeners are the most generous of people) and the fridge already had zucchini and eggplant in abundance, a skillet of ratatouille was in the best interest of the kitchen.

(Throwing away produce because you “don’t get around to using it” is a grave sin!)

I set off to make a memorable ratatouille and found the “individualists” (again) are right about ratatouille.

The old-style and traditional method of cooking each major ingredient separately before finishing the cooking in a stew pot makes a huge difference in the final dish.

So, what’s the difference? It appears that the oil in each, separate cooking enters the vegetable and prevents the moisture generated when finishing the dish from steaming the vegetables into a mush.

Sounds reasonable enough.

So let’s go!

But, first, some general ratatouille hints.

Start fresh and stay fresh. Make sure the veggies are as free of excess water as possible. I toss in a bit of white wine with the tomatoes. Wine helps the tomatoes stick to the veggies. A pinch of sugar will do the same. Pay attention as each vegetable is sautéd. Ratatouille isn’t something you can leave on the stove while you attend to the garden. You’ve got to remove each item just in time, or you’ll end up with mush. Don’t add salt until the end of cooking. Salt will pull water out of the vegetables and add to the much-making moisture level as the dish is cooked. I got the idea to add ground coriander from an old Frugal Gourmet recipe. It adds a nice, sweet (almost bread like) tone. Finally, top off your finished dish with some freshly grated pecorino Romano.

Eggplant: Pick a medium-sized eggplant. The larger ones have too many seeds and can be a bit mealy. Look for one with a deep purple skin and that also has a firm feel. If the eggplant is mushy before you start cooking, it will only get mushier in the pot. One of the best things you can do to an eggplant is to salt it and rinse it thoroughly before cooking to remove bitterness. For ratatouille, the eggplant is cut into one-inch cubes. The cubes are placed in a colander and a good two or three tablespoons of kosher salt are tossed into the cubes. The eggplant is allowed to “sweat” for at least 30 minutes and then it is rinsed well. Then, toss the eggplant cubes onto a dry towel and get as many water droplets off as you can.

Zucchini: Use two medium-sized courgettes that are just slightly over two inches across at their widest end. Don’t use those baseball bat-sized monstrosities some people grow. They’re just too full of seeds and they tend to be soft. Use those for zucchini fritters! After trimming the ends, cut them in half, lengthwise, and then cut them into one inch thick chunks.

Peppers: Use firm, green peppers. If you prefer, use long Italian peppers. Be sure to cut the ribs out, as they add a bitter flavor when cooked. Red peppers can add a festive touch to the dish. In my experience, the green peppers give just the right flavors.

Garlic: Use fresh, large cloves. Peel them and then smash them with the side of a knife or use a garlic press. Add the garlic toward the end of the cooking for each vegetable ingredient. Never allow garlic to scorch or it will add bitterness to your cooking.

Tomatoes: If you use fresh (Why not?), cut one pound of ripe tomatoes into a small dice. A 15-ounce can of diced tomatoes works equally well, since they will be cooked down into a thick sauce.

Onion: Yellow onions are perfect here. Add about 3-4 minced scallions, including the green parts

Basil: FRESH, FRESH, or FRESH! Never use dried basil. Add half during the last bit of cooking, or to the tomatoes as they cook. Then, keep some reserved to use as a garnish.

That’s it. Lets look at everything you’ll need:

1 medium eggplant cut into 1” cubes, salted and rinsed

2 medium zucchini halved and cut into 1” chunks

2 C coarsely chopped yellow onion

3-4 scallions, minced

1 ½ C green pepper in 1” squares

6-7 LARGE cloves of fresh garlic smashed or pressed (divided into thirds)

½ C (or so) good quality olive oil

1 tsp ground coriander

¼ C flat-leaf parsley, chopped

1 lb fresh tomatoes, small diced OR 1 14.5oz can

1 C fresh basil (packed), chiffonade (divided)

2-3 TBS pecorino Romano cheese

¼ C white wine

kosher salt

fresh black pepper (lots)

Cut up and prepare vegetables. Salt and rinse the eggplant. Heat ¼ C of olive oil in a deep skillet or Dutch oven over medium-low heat. (NOTE: Stir in a generous twist or two of black pepper during the cooking of each vegetable. Do not add salt.) Sauté the zucchini gently for five minutes. Then, remove the zucchini to a large bowl. Add a bit more oil, if needed, and sauté the onion and green pepper for fifteen minutes. The onion should NOT brown. Rather it should be very soft and “sweated”, without brown edges. During the last two minutes of cooking the onion, stir in 1/3 of the garlic. Remove the onion, green pepper, and garlic mixture to the bowl containing the partially cooked zucchini. Add a bit more olive oil to the pan. Toss in the eggplant and toss well to coat with oil. Sauté the eggplant over medium-low heat for 15 minutes, occasionally stirring VERY gently. During the last 2-3 minutes, stir in another 1/3 of your garlic. Remove to the bowl containing the other vegetables.

Add the rest of the oil to the pan. Add the tomatoes and the rest of the garlic. Stir in the wine and the ground coriander. Cook over low-medium heat until the liquid thickens. When the liquid is thickened, stir in ½ of the basil. Then, add the cooked vegetables and toss GENTLY. Stir in the parsley. Cook, covered, for 30 minutes. Check frequently. If there is too much liquid cook uncovered. If there is not enough liquid, add water and wine (50:50) to avoid scorching. Remember this is cooked over low-medium heat. So scorching should not be an issue.

Turn off the heat and allow the ratatouille to “rest” for 5-10 minutes. Check seasoning and add salt and/or pepper as needed. Serve hot, warm, or cold. Spoon into deep bowls. Sprinkle generously with fresh basil and pecorino Romano. If serving cold, drizzle a bit of olive oil over the ratatouille and sprinkle chopped black Kalamata olives on top.

Serve with crusty bread (or rolls) and LOTS of white wine.

If you want great ratatouille, cook things in batches. We commented, again and again, that each bite was like taking a tour of a garden. Each vegetable is highlighted its own flavors while adding to the medley of flavors in the whole dish.

So…be an individualist!



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