“The secret of a good ratatouille is to cook the vegetables separately so each will taste truly of itself.” — Joel Robuchon
I relish these wise words from one of the most renowned chefs in the world. And I humbly endorse them.
I discovered there are two stages to preparing the ultimate Ratatouille: 1) Cooking each vegetable separately (as per Robuchon’s advice), then 2) Transferring them all to an ovenproof dish (I like to use an earthenware one with a lid) and baking the colourful, flavour-laden concoction briefly in the oven.
You can choose from three methods for the first stage – searing each vegetable separately in batches in a skillet (my preferred modus operandi), roasting in the oven or grilling them on the barbecue.
After some experimenting, I found that good-size chunks of each vegetable work better than small ones. I also like to toss each vegetable with oil, salt and pepper in a large bowl before adding to the skillet.
And here’s the key trick gleaned from my sleuthing. When transferring the browned vegetables to an ovenproof dish, add the tomatoes (cooked with the onions) LAST so their juices drip down through the Ratatouille as it bakes.
This is one of my all-time favourite dishes. It’s versatile, makes use of the local, seasonal harvest and can be served to vegans and vegetarians in its basic rendition.
There are many tasty tweaks and twists on the basic theme.
You can crumble goat cheese on top of the finished Ratatouille and quickly slip it under the broiler until browned just before serving. Add tofu chunks and you have a meatless meal.
Ratatouille works as a side dish or main course and can be used as a sauce for pasta. Serve it hot, at room temperature or cold. Chop it up with some black olives and/or capers and you’ve got a topping for bruschetta.
Omit the eggplant and zucchini and – hey presto – there’s another delicious dish: Peperonata.
Ratatouille is even better the next day when the gorgeous flavours have had time to meld and mellow. It is absolutely best made in mid- to late summer and early fall when all the vegetables are at their peak.
Please use this recipe as a guide and feel free to vary it as desired.
I vary the veggies according to season and use ripe fresh tomatoes in summer (cherry and grape tomatoes will also work well), canned ones in winter. By “big chunks” I mean about 1½-inch/2 cm in size – don’t go smaller or the veggies will go mushy.
To peel and seed tomatoes (a nice touch), place in large saucepan of boiling water about 10 seconds. Transfer to bowl of cold water, peel off skins and discard. Squeeze out seeds. Chop tomato flesh. You can substitute a 28-oz/796 mL can of tomatoes for fresh.
About ⅓ cup olive oil
1 medium eggplant, cut in big chunks
3 medium zucchini, cut in big chunks
1 or 2 sweet red peppers, cut in big pieces
1 or 2 sweet yellow peppers, cut in big pieces
2 medium red onions, peeled, cut in chunks
2 tbsp chopped fresh thyme or 1 tbsp dried
6 garlic cloves, peeled
4 or 5 large ripe tomatoes, stem end removed, cut in chunks
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 350F.
Toss eggplant chunks with 1 to 2 tablespoons of oil (just enough to coat), salt and pepper in large bowl. Add to large heavy skillet over medium-high heat; cook, turning once or twice, until nicely browned on all sides but not soft, about 5 minutes. Transfer to ovenproof dish. Repeat with zucchini and peppers.
Heat remaining oil in skillet. Add onions, thyme and garlic. Cook, stirring, about 4 minutes or until softened and a bit caramelized. Add tomatoes; cook about 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add mixture to ovenproof dish. Do not stir.
Cover; bake in oven 20 minutes. Remove lid. Cook about 10 minutes more or until vegetables are tender but not mushy.
Serve warm, at room temperature or cold.
Makes about 6 servings.
Francis Lam’s Weapons-Grade Ratatouille Recipe
I have to admit his is pretty good.
Makes a boatload, nearly half a gallon, of very intensely flavored stuff
- 1 head garlic, minced
- 3 shallots, minced
- 1 large onion (about 12 ounces), minced
- ½ cup of extra-virgin olive oil (yes, that much. Summertime is living it up time.)
- A couple more glugs of olive oil. Hell, just keep the bottle handy.
- Salt and pepper
- 2 large red peppers, puréed in the food processor
- 4 pounds of very good regular field tomatoes, or fancy heirlooms if you’re rich. Just make sure they’re the kind you eat a piece of … and then involuntarily eat another piece of a minute later. Oh, and purée them in the food processor too.
- 2½ pounds of summer squash and zucchini, ½-inch dice
- 1½ pounds of eggplant, diced into ½-inch cubes
- Thyme and basil to taste
- Start by cooking the garlic, shallot and onion in the ½ cup of olive oil over medium-low to low heat in a heavy pot so that they soften and give up their liquid. Stir and try not to let them brown. (Meanwhile, cut the other vegetables; you’ll be waiting a while.) Season lightly with salt and pepper.
- Once they became a pale golden sticky mess, add the puréed red pepper and let it get all nice and friendly. Season lightly with salt and pepper. The pepper should have a ton of water, so let it cook down, stirring every few minutes to make sure nothing gets too caramelized and burned, until — after God knows how long — you’ll have a rich, rusty jam.
- To which, of course, you’ll add your load of puréed tomatoes. Bring it to a boil, and turn it way down to let that baby snooze off all its liquid. Season lightly with — guess what? — salt and pepper. You’ve probably already been cooking for an hour or more at this point. You’re not even close to being there yet. You’re concentrating its sugar and tartness, and it’s going to be all umami-oooo-Mommy. It’s worth it. Around this time, fire up your oven to 450. Stir the tomatoes occasionally, just so they don’t burn at the bottom.
- Meanwhile, toss the zucchini with salt, pepper and olive oil. Taste a piece. Doesn’t it taste good? It’s going to be even better after you roast it hard in one layer on a baking tray. After the sizzling starts to slow down in the oven, take a peek. Are you getting some nice browning underneath? Great. Take it out, let it cool a bit before putting it in a big bowl and do it again until you run out of squash. Then do the same with the eggplant, putting it in the same bowl, and let them wait for the minister to their wedding.
- When the 6 pounds of stuff you cooked in the tomato pot can be packed into a pint of good-God-DAMN goodness, it will have flavor that doesn’t quit — a finish that lasts forever. You’ll know it’s ready when it gives the oil back up, it makes squishy noises when you stir it, and when you taste it and suddenly want to punch a hole in the wall.
- Now you’re ready to finish. Chop up some thyme and basil, as much as you like (I like a lot. Shocker), and stir the herbs into the tomato base. Carefully combine the tomato with the rest of the vegetables so that you don’t mash up your zucchini and eggplant. It’s victory lap time. Stick a spoon into it and feed it to people you love. Then wrap it up tightly and let it sit in the fridge for a day; it’ll be even better tomorrow — the flavors meld, the herbs work their way through the whole thing. Just let it come back to room temperature when you serve it, to your favorite people and maybe with some cheese and bread, and try not to break too much furniture.
Keeps in the fridge for up to 3-4 days. It does freeze well, though, if you fill up the container so there’s not much air in it and wrap it tightly in several layers of plastic wrap. Let it thaw in the fridge, and it’ll still be awesome in the dead of winter, when tomatoes taste about as good as tennis balls.