Ratatouille cooked in layers
Ratatouille is a classic southern French preparation that can be made many different ways, but is consistent in its use of the same six summer vegetables: tomatoes, eggplant, summer squash, peppers, onions and garlic. The addition—and how much—of olive oil, vinegar and herbs depends on the cook.
With this recipe, I considered how each vegetable behaves when exposed to heat, and which textures are desirable in the finished dish. The key is to maintain a balance between the release of each vegetable’s natural water content and how long they can “braise” in it without losing their shape and integrity. This dish will bake for up to 90 minutes.
makes 4 to 6 servings
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 small yellow onion, halved and thinly sliced
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped or grated on a Microplane
8 medium-size red sauce tomatoes such as Early Girl, San Marzano or other firm variety with fewer seeds, blanched and peeled
Pinch of saffron, optional
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 large red pepper, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 medium-size eggplant, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
6 springs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1 medium-size zucchini or summer squash
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
8 to 10 fresh basil leaves
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.
Using a large non reactive sauté pan add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and a splash of water. Add the onions and garlic and begin to cook and soften over medium heat. The water application is to prevent the vegetables from browning, allowing the onion and garlic to release their own water content. Cook for 6-8 minutes.
Hand press the blanch tomatoes to break them up. The tomatoes will break down into juice during the cooking process, so exact sizing is not necessary. Add the tomatoes and continue cooking as the tomatoes release their water, 6-8 minutes. Add the saffron and red wine vinegar and increase heat to medium, add the diced eggplant and pepper, season with salt and stir to combine ingredients. Add the thyme springs and bay leaf. Cover and place in the oven for 1 hour. Check half way into the cooking process to make sure the vegetables are giving off liquid, creating the stock for cooking and softening the vegetable. If the vegetables appear dry, add a little water to compensate.
After an hour, add the diced summer squash, tomato paste and cayenne, stir in well. Place back into the oven uncovered for 25 minutes.
The final result is a ratatouille with vegetables that should still have some texture and resistance. Continue cooking on the stove top over medium heat if it appears the liquid could reduce and concentrate more. Add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and fold in the basil leaves. Adjust seasoning if needed.
I love this vegetable dish served over warm polenta. It works well as a side dish for roasted chicken, pork or beef also.