summer’s last hurrah: roasted vegetable ratatouille
All of my food friends have been all atwitter the last couple weeks about pumpkins, apples and other fruits of fall, but I’ve been having a harder time letting go of summer flavors. It occurred to me a couple weeks ago that the whole summer had gone by and I hadn’t made any ratatouille- how did that happen?! Luckily the folks at the farmers’ market still had tomatoes, peppers and eggplant [NB: this was 2 weeks ago, on Oct. 3]- I just had to go to the store for squash, but happily it was locally grown too.
I realize this recipe isn’t very timely*, but it takes me a while to get a blog post up these days. I bought the vegetables and didn’t get to make the ratatouille until the following weekend. (That’s one of the perks of the farmers’ market though- it’s so fresh that even if it sits around for a week, it’s still probably fresher than what’s at the store.) Tack another week on there to edit photos and write up a post and before you know it, it’s already mid-October! I’m trying to be Zenlike about the fact that I have almost no free time these days, and just make sure to fully take advantage of any little scrap that I do have, but it’s hard not to be a little bummed out. For example, I really wanted to make the pho recipe for this month’s Daring Cooks, and the date rushed up on me before I could plan it out. (Sadly, all of my cooking has to be planned with near-military precision these days, or it just can’t fit in…)
But on to our ratatouille! I’ve made ratatouille lots of times and had pretty good results, but this time I was after something specific: I wanted the vegetables to have that melting quality, but to keep their shape and flavor rather than be cooked down into an indistinguishable mush. The solution? Roasting. Not only does roasting help them retain their “integrity”, but you get the additional element of caramelization that you wouldn’t get from cooking them all together on the stove. Plus, you remove moisture and concentrate the flavor. My guinea pigs, aka Marvin & Amanda, said they could definitely taste the difference. I think this one’s a keeper! I served it with creamy polenta with Parmigiano and some kale that I’d sautéed with olive oil, garlic and pepper flakes. Along with a green salad, some bread and cheeses, and a couple bottles of red, it was the perfect goodbye-to-summer vegetarian feast.
*I know this is borderline heretical, but if you’re in need of a summer food fix in the middle of winter, all of the ingredients for this can be found year-round at the grocery store, and I am hard-pressed to tell the difference between squash & eggplant from a greenhouse or from a garden once they’re cooked. The tomatoes won’t be quite as good, but Romas are fairly dependable, and roasting definitely goes a long way towards improving them. Or you could always substitute a can of good-quality San Marzanos.
Roasted Vegetable Ratatouille
This is a very loose ”recipe” because ultimately I think this is a dish that has a lot of flexibility, and however you prepare it, it’s unlikely to be bad as long as you have good ingredients. But here’s what I used and how I went about it; use it as a guideline and go for it!
2 pints Roma tomatoes
3 bell peppers- red, yellow or orange
2 yellow summer squash
3-4 cloves garlic
fresh herbs- I grabbed some marjoram, thyme, and a little rosemary from my garden, although basil is good too
Wash and pat dry the peppers, and place them in the broiler, turning occasionally and checking on them often, until they’re blackened on all sides. Place in a paper grocery bag and roll the top shut; set aside. Reduce oven to 300°.
While the peppers are roasting, cut the squash and eggplant into large-ish chunks (see photos; they’ll shrink a bit as they roast). Generously salt the eggplant and place in a strainer while you prep everything else. Cut the tomatoes in half lengthwise and remove the little stemmy bit; put cut side up on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with a little salt and brush or drizzle with olive oil. Cut the onions- I like to do wedge-shaped slices rather than rings. Mince any herbs you’ll be using.
Place the squash & zucchini in a large bowl, salt lightly, and drizzle with olive oil. Shake the bowl around so the oil gets distributed all over, then dump it onto a baking sheet. Put the eggplant on some paper towel and press lightly to remove excess moisture and salt, then toss with olive oil, putting it on a separate baking sheet. Place all three baking sheets in the oven.
When the peppers are cool enough to handle, remove the skins, stems and seeds, and cut into approx 1″ squares; set aside in a bowl.
In a dutch oven or other large heavy pot, heat a generous amount of olive oil (a few Tbs) over medium heat. Sauté the onions and garlic until the onions begin to soften. Add any minced herbs you’re using (except basil- add that at the end) and hold, covered, over low heat.
Check on the vegetables in the oven periodically- they’ll be ready at slightly different times. I kept the tomatoes in about 10 minutes longer than the squash. Ultimately your cooking time will depend on how big you cut everything. As the eggplant and squash are ready, add them to the pot with the onions and keep warm over low heat. Add the peppers and any juices that have collected. When the tomatoes are ready, let them cool enough to handle, and cut each half into quarters, adding to the pot. Make sure to scrape any of the juice that collects on the cutting board into the pot as well!
Raise the heat slightly (to medium low) and cook the vegetables just until the flavors combine- remember, we’re going for distinguishable pieces rather than stew. Taste for salt (although you shouldn’t need any, since the vegetables were already salted). If you’re using basil, cut it into a chiffonade and stir it in at the end. Serve with polenta or couscous for a vegetarian meal, or as a side dish to roasted chicken or lamb. Leftovers can be used as filling for an omelette or put it in a baguette with some goat cheese… lots of possibilities with this one!