The French provençal dish ratatouille has been made famous by Disney and Pixar but it’s enjoyed a cherished presence in the south of France for much, much longer than that.
Ratatouille is always made with the sunny trio of eggplant, red bell pepper, and zucchini, along with tomato, onion, and garlic. The vegetables are chopped and sautéed in olive oil until a soft provençal vegetable mash-up results. The dish can be served hot or cold, as a side or with bread or rice as a main course. Eating a spoonful of ratatoille is like savoring a concentrated dose of the Mediterannean sun.
Opinion differs on the best way to prepare ratatouille; I suppose it depends on how much time you have. The simplest (and least tasty) version is simply to sautée all the chopped vegetables together. Slightly improved technique (and flavor) calls for sautéeing each vegetable separately and then combining them and simmering them together. This preserves the individual flavors of each ingredient before they are mixed. What I (and my French cooking mentor) prefer is to grill the trio of eggplant, bell pepper, and zucchini with garlic and olive oil and then simmer them together with the previously sautéed onion and tomato. This, in my opinion, gives the best mélange of flavor. [A note: I prefer to leave the eggplant skin on, because otherwise it disintegrates completely and loses all form. Ratatouille purists, however, may disagree with me. Which is not the worst thing in the world.]
The preparation of the vegetables alone (peeling, chopping, etc.) requires quite a bit of time as well as more hands than your own two–and then the grilling and cooking extend the cooking time from reasonably long to very, so be prepared to spend all afternoon in the kitchen. Of course, if you have the good fortune to be en vacances in Provence (as I am right now) some leisurely chopping and chatting with cooking buddies all afternoon won’t be a problem, especially if you have a bottle of Pastis on hand, the sun overhead, and the sound of cicadas in the background. Just remember to save time for a game of pétanque afterwards . . .
- 2 large eggplants
- 2 red or yellow bell peppers
- 3 zucchini
- 4-6 tomatoes
- 2 medium red onions
- 1 head of garlic
- 4-6 Tbsp olive oil
- handful of fresh basil
- herbes de provence
- Remove the stems of the eggplant (don’t peel), slice lengthwise into thick strips (see photo above), maybe 1/2 inch thick. Remove the ends of the zucchini and peel, then slice into thick strips like the eggplant. Remove stems and seeds of peppers, quarter them.
- Using a garlic press, mince 3-4 cloves of garlic. Mix with 2 Tbsp of olive oil. Brush eggplant, zucchini, pepper slices with olive oil & garlic.
- Arrange in one layer on a grill or oven rack and cook until one side is browned and slightly blistered. Flip and grill the other side. Grill in batches if there is not enough room, taking care not to let the vegetables burn.
- Meanwhile, peel the tomatoes and roughly chop. Dice the red onion. Mince the remaining 3-4 cloves of garlic. Sautee tomatoes, onion, and garlic together in a large pan with 2 Tbsp olive oil until onion is soft.
- Once eggplant and zucchini are grilled, slice into long strips (see photo above). Rub off skin of the bell peppers and slice likewise.
- Add eggplant, zucchini, and bell pepper to the sautée mixture. Season with salt, pepper, and herbes de provence. Cook on low heat until all vegetables are soft and more or less homogenized into one mixture. Turn off heat and mix in fresh chopped basil. Strain out the excess liquid and oil.
- Serve warm or cold, as a side dish or with rice or bread as a main dish.