The end of summer is such an amazing time to cook and eat. So many vegetables are in season, especially the sexy, colorful Mediterranean ones—eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, zucchini. Yes, I think even zucchini can be sexy, when it's picked while still slim, taut, and shiny dark green.
These vegetables have a keen affinity for one another, so I'm always looking for ways to team them together in dishes. Classic French ratatouille (pronounced ra-ta-TWEE) is a natural. Trouble is, I usually hate ratatouille.
While there's nothing wrong with the concept of ratatouille—a medley of these vegetables accented with garlic and onion, fresh herbs, and some fruity olive oil—the execution of the dish is often a big fat disappointment for me. Most ratatouille just feels like a vegetable porridge. Looking through a half-dozen cookbooks, I saw instructions to "simmer," "stew," or even "boil"—the idea being to marry the flavors of the vegetables. But for me, too much togetherness just makes the dish bland. The vegetables lose their own personalities, and the texture gets so mushy.
Sauté each vegetable solo. For years, I never really bothered to make ratatouille until I learned an untraditional method from a colleague at cooking school. Instead of a wet-cooking method, I sauté each vegetable separately. This dry-heat/high-heat method cooks off a lot of water from the vegetables, concentrating their flavors. And they also brown and caramelize, which deepens and rounds out the flavor of the dish. Another benefit is that I can season each vegetable properly and cook it to just the right texture.
Reduce the juices for extra flavor. After each vegetable is done, I toss it in a colander set over a bowl. As the vegetables sit, lots of savory juices accumulate in the bowl. I simmer those juices until they're reduced to an incredibly flavorful glaze (and it takes all my willpower not to drink the glaze right then and there), which I fold into the vegetables, along with fresh herbs, a spritz of lemon, and a dash of hot sauce. These last additions lift the whole dish and cut the sweetness of the vegetables.
I do use a lot of olive oil as I sauté, which I think adds flavor and creates a super-lush texture. The finished ratatouille is intensely flavored and works equally well as a side dish and as a condiment to use in other dishes. I like to make a pretty big batch, even just for my small family, because I can transform the leftovers into so many other dishes. It keeps well in the refrigerator for a week, and is the basis for a simple vegetable tart, a savory gratin, and many more delicious quick meals (see the box below).
Roasting is a good option too. I'm also offering a second untraditional method for making ratatouille that doesn't create flavors quite as rich as the sautéed version, but that's still pretty darn good (my husband actually prefers it). The method—oven roasting—is different, but the principle is the same: cook the vegetables with high heat to evaporate water and concentrate flavors. This method is much more hands-off, so you're free to take care of the rest of dinner. It yields a bit less, though, so you might not have the delicious leftovers.
Make it ahead or use it left over: more great ideas for extra ratatouille
Ratatouille is so versatile that you'll want to have leftovers to use throughout the week. The sautéed version yields more than the roasted one and holds up best (two payoffs for putting the extra time into making it), so plan to make that one if you're expecting leftovers. You can keep it in the refrigerator for a week, which is a boon for making delicious quick meals. You can also freeze leftovers for a month or so; the texture won't be quite the same, but you could add a little to a soup or braise, or tuck some into a sandwich: Here are a few ideas to get started:
Fill an omelet with a spoonful of ratatouille and some crumbled goat cheese.
Toss ratatouille with hot penne pasta, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, and a few spoonfuls of pasta cooking water to loosen.
Layer lasagna noodles with ratatouille, a little tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano; bake until warm and bubbly.
Mix ratatouille with some chopped brine-cured black olives, capers, and grated orange zest and pile onto toasted baguette slices as an appetizer.
Nestle three jumbo shrimp (peeled and deveined) in individual gratin dishes or cazuelas filled with ratatouille. Top with Greek black olives, crumbled feta, and a drizzle of olive oil. Bake until the shrimp are pink and everything's hot and bubbly, and serve as a first course.
Grill some meaty fish steaks, such as halibut, tuna, or swordfish, and top with a spoonful of ratatouille and a squeeze of lemon. Or use the ratatouille as a bed for slices of grilled lamb.
Use a scoop of cold ratatouille as part of a Niçoise salad, along with steamed new potatoes, green beans, tuna in oil, black olives, and hard-cooked egg. Drizzle with a lemon-garlic vinaigrette.