A bounty of fresh vegetables never goes to waste with a dish like ratatouille in your culinary repertoire. This classic French dish makes use of zucchini, eggplant, peppers, onions and tomatoes, their flavors melding together as they cook in garlic and herbs. A versatile dish, ratatouille doesn't require a strict recipe -- every family or cook has his own variation.
A ratatouille wouldn't be a ratatouille without the five main vegetable ingredients: zucchini, eggplant, peppers, onions and tomatoes. Yellow squash, zucchini's close cousin, can also be added. Peppers and tomatoes are best if you peel off the thin layer of skin, but peeling eggplant is optional. Cut each vegetable to uniform size so they cook evenly, and no one vegetable outshines another. Cook whole garlic cloves in ratatouille or slice the garlic thinly so it melts into the sauce as it cooks. Season generously with salt, pepper, and fresh herbs such as thyme, basil, oregano, rosemary, or an herb blend like herbes de Provence.
Many cooks argue that the key to the best flavor in ratatouille is to saute each vegetable first. This brings out the individual flavors first so that its flavor features prominently, yet balanced when mixed together in the dish. Start by sauteing the garlic in a few tablespoons of cooking oil to flavor the oil. Remove the garlic and set aside. Next, add the onions and saute for about 5 to 7 minutes or until the onions are softened, with a light golden-brown color. Remove the onions and set them aside with the garlic. Repeat with the remaining peppers, zucchini, yellow squash and eggplant pieces. Tomatoes can be cooked for a few minutes in the flavored oil along with the herbs and spices.
Stewed ratatouille requires a heavy-bottomed pan that won't scorch the ingredients as they cook -- Dutch ovens and deep, cast-iron skillets work well. Add sauteed ingredients to the Dutch oven, or, to save time, skip sauteing and prepare the dish in one pot. Start with garlic, herbs and onions, and cook them until soft. Add the peppers, zucchini, squash, eggplant and tomatoes one at a time, allowing each to soften before adding the next. Bring the mixture to a low boil over medium to medium-high heat until all the vegetables are tender. The ratatouille can be eaten at the just-tender stage. The flavors of each ingredient truly meld together when reduced to simmer for about 2 hours, resulting in an authentic ratatouille experience.
The vegetables in ratatouille lend themselves well to roasting, and the caramelized edges offer a touch of sweetness to the dish. Toss all the vegetables, herbs and spices together in a bowl before adding them to a wide, shallow roasting pan. Roast the vegetables at about 400 degrees Fahrenheit, turning once every 20 minutes, for about 2 hours or until the edges become dark brown in color. Pre-sauteed vegetables require only about 1 hour of roasting time.
Confit Biyaldi Variation
The children's movie, "Ratatouille," serves up a variation of roasted ratatouille known as "confit biyaldi." Line the bottom of a casserole dish with a piperade -- onions, peppers, garlic, tomatoes and herbs simmered to make a sauce. Cut zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant and tomato in thin, even slices. Arrange the vegetable slices in even rows or spirals, alternating vegetables in a pattern. Top with a mixture of oil, garlic and herbs. Cover with foil or parchment paper to steam the veggies for a few hours at about 275 F; then remove the cover to roast and caramelize the veggies. Serve with a drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette.
A former cake decorator and competitive horticulturist, Amelia Allonsy is most at home in the kitchen or with her hands in the dirt. She received her Bachelor's degree from West Virginia University. Her work has been published in the San Francisco Chronicle and on other websites.