Originally from Provence in the south of France, ratatouille is the essence of the summer vegetable garden at its best. There are many ways to make ratatouille from simply diced vegetables cooked in a saucepan to a fancy layered casserole. And the choice of vegetables is up to you as long as you include onion, garlic, squash and/or eggplant, and tomatoes. In this recipe, very loosely based on the one in Julia Child’s classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York 1961), I try to strike a happy middle ground.
1 eggplant, about 12 ounces
1 zucchini or summer squash, 12 ounces to 1 pound
1 pound tomatoes, I use a mixture of red and yellow
1 onion, red onion is particularly pretty
4 cloves garlic
¼ cup coarsely chopped fresh basil
1 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh thyme or 1 tsp. dried
1 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh oregano or 1 tsp. dried
2 bay leaves
Fruity extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Peel the eggplant, slice lengthwise into ⅜-inch slices and cut those slices into 1-inch by 3-inch pieces. Scrub the squash and cut like the eggplant. Put both into a large bowl and sprinkle generously with kosher salt. Set aside for at least 30 minutes. Drain the accumulated liquid and rinse thoroughly to remove the salt. Set aside. (You could skip this step but not only does it remove any bitterness in the eggplant, it concentrates the flavor of the vegetables.)
Place the tomatoes in a pot of boiling water for about 30 seconds. Let cool for a couple of minutes then cut out the stem and peel. Cut into slices ¼ -inch thick then cut those slices into ¼-inch strips. Set aside.
Cut the onion in half through the root, peel, and slice thinly. Peel the garlic and crush by putting your kitchen knife flat on top of it and smacking it with your fist. Chop coarsely.
Lay the eggplant in one layer on half of a kitchen towel, fold over, and press to dry. Heat about 1 Tbsp. of the oil in an enameled cast iron Dutch over or other suitable vessel. When just about to smoke put the eggplant in the pan in one layer. Fry for about 1 minute on each side. Remove and set aside. Repeat with the rest of the eggplant adding a bit of oil after each batch as needed. Do the same with the squash.
If needed add a bit more oil to the pan and cook the onions over medium-low heat for about 5 minutes or until softened but not browned. Add the garlic and cook for another minute or two. Spread the tomatoes over the onions, sprinkle with a large pinch of kosher salt, and add the herbs and a generous grind of black pepper. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes. Layer the squash on top of the tomatoes, grind on a bit of pepper, cover, and continue to simmer for another 10 minutes. Uncover; turn the heat up a bit, and cook, stirring so that it doesn’t stick, for another 15 minutes or so.
Ratatouille is very good served right away and even better if allowed to cool and reheated.