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Cooking

Perfect ratatouille

New techniques and variations suit this old favorite.

By Adam Ried
September 12, 2010

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As a kid I never much liked ratatouille, for two reasons. First, it tended to be mushy, and second, because I viewed it as a rush to use the last of the garden and farm-stand mainstays, and therefore as a sure sign that summer was over. As an adult doing the cooking, I know how to control the texture of the vegetables (and I’m not so keen on heat and humidity), so I welcome the quintessential end-of-summer dish.

In a good ratatouille, the vegetables should retain a bit of texture – especially the eggplant and zucchini. To that end, I believe in salting them to draw out some of their moisture before cooking, sauteing rather than stewing them, and keeping the cooking times minimal. The onions, on the other hand, should be cooked long and slow, until they are melting and sweet.

Wonderful on its own, ratatouille can also be pressed into action as a hearty pasta sauce (thin it with some pasta cooking water), as a bruschetta topping (with crumbled feta, goat, or blue cheese, if you like), and as an accompaniment to shrimp, fish, chicken, red meats, or sausages of any stripe.

Ratatouille

Makes about 8 cups

Use the largest skillet you have, so you can cook the eggplant and zucchini in as few batches as possible. Some herbes de Provence mixtures do not include fennel seed; add ½ teaspoon if you miss the flavor (or if you just like it a lot).

2 medium eggplants (about 2½ pounds), cut into 1-inch cubes

Salt and black pepper

3 medium zucchini (about 1½ pounds), cut into 1-inch cubes

1/3 cup olive oil, or more as necessary

2 medium onions, quartered lengthwise and thinly sliced (about 4 cups)

2 large bell peppers, preferably 1 red and 1 yellow, cored, seeded, and cut into ¾-inch-wide strips and halved crosswise (about 3 cups)

8 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon herbes de Provence ½ teaspoon fennel seeds, optional

4 medium tomatoes (about 2 pounds), halved and grated on the large holes of box grater (about 3 cups), skins discarded

½ cup chopped fresh parsley

In a large colander set over a bowl, toss the eggplant cubes with 1 tablespoon salt and set aside to drain, at least 1 hour. In a second colander over a bowl, toss the zucchini cubes with 2 teaspoons salt and set aside to drain, about 1 hour. Under running water, rinse the eggplant and zucchini well, and spread each to drain on paper towels. With more paper towels, press firmly on the eggplant and zucchini to dry them thoroughly (the pieces will become compressed, which is fine).

In a very large skillet over medium-high heat, heat 1 tablespoon oil until it ripples. Add enough eggplant or zucchini to fit in a single layer and cook, without moving, until well-browned on the bottom, about 4 minutes. Stir, cook for 2 minutes longer, and transfer to a large bowl. Return the skillet to medium-high heat and repeat to cook the remaining eggplant and zucchini in 2 or 3 more batches, using 1 tablespoon oil per batch. Transfer to the bowl.

Return the skillet to medium-high heat, add another 1½ tablespoons of oil, and heat until it ripples. Add the onions and 1 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring constantly, until the onions begin to sizzle, about 30 seconds. Adjust the heat to medium and cook, stirring often, until the onions are very soft and translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the bell peppers, stir to combine, and continue cooking until peppers begin to soften, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic, herbes de Provence, and fennel seed, if using, stir to combine, and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, adjust heat to medium-high, and, using a wooden spoon, scrape the bottom of the pan until the film of browned bits dissolves into the tomatoes and they come to a strong simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce thickens slightly, about 8 minutes. Add the eggplant and zucchini, ½ teaspoon salt, and black pepper to taste, stir to combine, adjust the heat to medium, cover, and cook to blend flavors, about 7 minutes.

Off heat, allow the ratatouille to cool for about 20 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and black pepper, if necessary. Serve warm, at room temperature, or chilled, stirring most of the parsley into the ratatouille just before serving and sprinkling the remaining parsley over the top.

Ratatouille With North African Flavors

Follow the recipe for ratatouille, making the following changes:

1) In a small bowl, mix 1½ teaspoons ancho chili powder, 1 teaspoon ground coriander, and ½ teaspoon each ground cumin, caraway seeds, and cayenne pepper. In a small skillet over medium heat, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add 2 minced cloves garlic and the spice mixture, and cook, stirring until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Off heat, add 2 teaspoons tomato paste, ¾ teaspoon paprika, and ¼ teaspoon salt, and stir to mix; set spice paste aside.

2) Proceed with recipe, beginning with salting and draining eggplant and zucchini (omit the herbes de Provence and fennel seeds).

3) After adding and cooking the bell peppers, add the spice paste.

4) Substitute an equal amount of chopped fresh mint for the parsley.

Ratatouille With Puttanesca Flavors

Follow the recipe for ratatouille, making the following changes:

1) About 5 minutes after adding the bell peppers to the onions, add 2 tablespoons minced anchovy fillets and ¾ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, and stir to mix.

2) Increase the quantity of garlic to 12 cloves.

3) About 5 minutes after adding the cooked zucchini and eggplant to the tomato mixture, stir in 1 cup Kalamata olives, pitted and quartered lengthwise.

4) Substitute an equal quantity of chopped fresh basil for the parsley.

Send comments or suggestions to Adam Ried at cooking@globe.com.

KITCHEN AIDE
In praise of Herbes de Provence

As a rule, I prefer to use fresh herbs over dried, and I had always done so when making ratatouille. Then Catrine Kelty, a food stylist with whom I work on this column, urged me to consider using dried herbes de Provence. Boy, was she right! I was blown away by their flavor and fragrance.

Widely available at gourmet and spice shops, this mixture typical of the south of France usually contains dried thyme, rosemary, sage, marjoram, savory, basil, and lavender. Fennel seed is a welcome and frequent element (though sometimes it goes missing), and tarragon, chervil, dill, mint, and oregano occasionally show up, as well.