“Can we PLEASE have vegetables for the rest of the summer?”
My children and I just returned home from a whirlwind trip, visiting many relatives and friends within a four state radius. While we enjoyed being with the people we loved, we ate a lot more meat than we are used to eating. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, we ate meat at everyone else’s homes, because they either ate more meat in general than we do or because they thought they were giving us a treat by cooking meat.
Still, I laughed in surprise to hear my middle child practically begging me to purchase only vegetables when we stopped at the grocery store on our way home from our trip. I asked her if there was anything in particular she wanted me to make for dinner that evening when we arrived home, and she promptly answered, “Ratatouille.”
For any folks unfamiliar with ratatouille, it’s a wonderful vegetable dish originating from France. The main vegetable ingredients are usually eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini and peppers, though recipes may vary. It makes for both an excellent side dish or a main entree. My children like to eat it sprinkled with reduced fat shredded cheese and with a side of nice, crusty whole grain bread.
I love to make it in the summer time when we can pick the vegetables fresh from our garden. It’s a light and refreshing meal for a hot, summer day, especially if you simply cook it quickly on the stove top or in your crockpot, both of which don’t heat up your kitchen too much.
1. Cooking Methods: There are a variety of ways to make ratatouille, and if you google it you’ll see that many chefs actually are very particular about the best method for making ratatouille. I have tried all methods and find that there are pros and cons to each.
The most used method is to simply saute the vegetables in a pan on the stove top. This is nice because you can make the dish quickly for a family that is complaining that they’re “starving”. In addition, it requires very little additional oil to saute. You need to be sure, though, to cut all the vegetables into sizes which will saute equitably and to cook them in order from longest cooking to shortest so you’re not serving a ratatouille which has overcooked zucchini with undercooked eggplant.
Another method is to roast the vegetables. What’s nice about roasted vegetable ratatouille is that all the pleasant, sweet tastes of the vegetables come out when roasted. The downside is that you usually need to roast the vegetables separately or precisely time the addition of each of the vegetables to the dish, both of which take time. As well, in the summer time, your kitchen will heat up quickly at the high temperatures needed for roasting. You’ll also find that you need a bit more oil to keep the vegetables from sticking to your pan as they roast.
A third method is to simply put your vegetables into a crockpot to slow cook over time. This method is extremely useful if you’re going to be out all day and want something done when you arrive home. The crockpot does make for a softer ratatouille, though, unless you’re home to take it out as soon as you see that the vegetables are at the slightly firmer texture you want. This method, however, does completely cut out the need for any fat which is nice for folks who need to watch their fat intake.
A fourth method is baking the ratatouille in the oven as a casserole. I like to do this when I’m going to have company and don’t want to be cooking instead of chatting. You simply layer the vegetables into a casserole dish and bake the entire casserole at once. This method is convenient and easy. It does, however, make for a moister dish because the liquids from the vegetables won’t evaporate like they do when you saute the vegetables. If, however, you like cheese with your ratatouille, layering the vegetables with the cheese makes for a very tasty casserole.
A fifth method is to layer the vegetables like you would for baking in the oven, only you do so in a pot and simmer the ratatouille over the stove top instead. This doesn’t warm your house as much as using the oven would, and it doesn’t require the constant watch and stirring that sauteing the vegetables does. The results, however, are more soupy than the other methods.
2. Main Vegetables: Eggplant is the base for ratatouille. You want a nice firm eggplant which isn’t under ripe or over ripe, though. When you press with your finger into the skin of the eggplant, you should leave an imprint which slowly comes back to shape. If your indent goes deep and doesn’t press back, it’s a bit riper than you might want. If you press and it’s hard, leaving no indent, it’s not ripe enough. A ripe eggplant will have a nice glossy purple skin with a bright green cap. Eggplant with bruises or dark splotches are to be avoided.
To cut eggplant for ratatouille I recommend peeling the eggplant first, then slicing into 1/4 inch rounds which you then cut into 1 inch squares which are a good size for both cooking and eating. You should cut your other vegetables up first before you cut your eggplant, though, because eggplant starts to brown pretty quickly after it’s been cut.
For your zucchini and squash, I recommend using smaller ones over the larger sized versions. They’re tastier, sweeter, moister, and less seedy. If you only have larger sizes, though, simply scoop out the seeds and cut the zucchini and summer squash into bite size pieces.
If you’re using the smaller sized zucchini and summer squash – think 6 inches in length – I recommend cutting them in half and then slicing them into 1/4 inch half moon shapes. These cook quickly and provide nice bite size eating pieces.
For peppers, you can use whatever pepper you like, but I prefer the sweeter bell peppers. One, the taste complements the eggplant well, and two, using different colored peppers (red, orange, yellow) makes for a prettier ratatouille. I recommend cutting the peppers into 1 inch square pieces so they cook readily with the other vegetables and are easy to eat.
3. Other Additions: Some people believe a ratatouille should only have eggplant, zucchini, squash and peppers. Others like to add more ingredients. It’s really up to you.
We like the versions which add mushrooms so if we have mushrooms on hand, we’ll use them. I usually slice white button or cremini mushrooms into 1/4 inch slices for adding to the ratatouille.
Another nice addition if you want to add protein is beans. Chick peas, cannellini beans, and black-eyed peas are all tasty in a ratatouille. And some people even like to add cooked chopped chicken, though, as a family we don’t really make it that way.
4. Tomatoes: Ratatouille always uses tomatoes. Purists will say you should only use fresh tomatoes which you peel, seed and dice yourself. I must admit, it’s rather delicious to make ratatouille with fresh tomatoes. I, however, tend to use dice tomatoes which I’ve frozen or get in a can, because it’s faster, more convenient, and simpler. For my tastes, I prefer the tomatoes to be petite-sized diced tomatoes because they blend better with the other vegetables, but larger sized dices tomatoes are fine, too.
5. Seasonings: Ratatouille will most always call for onions, garlic, basil and oregano, but from there recipes vary. Some add more herbs like thyme and parsley. Many call for salt and pepper. A few like to mix things up and call for a bit of red pepper or balsamic vinegar.
I find that using fresh herbs gives the ratatouille the best taste, but often I use dried herbs because that’s what I have in the house and on hand. If you’re using fresh herbs, be sure to add them at the end of the cooking. If you’re using dried, add it near the beginning of the cooking time.
For the garlic, you’ll find that recipes call for different ways of preparing it. Some say to use slivers. Others call for minced garlic. A few will suggest roasting the garlic first. Occasionally recipes will tell you to add smashed garlic. It really depends on your tastes and your time.
Roasted garlic is delightful in a ratatouille but then you have to take the time to roast it. Mince garlic incorporates more evenly throughout the ratatouille. Slivers give you more of a garlicky bite. Smashed garlic exudes more of the flavor.
As for salt and pepper: I rarely add salt, but using a small amount will bring out the flavors a bit more. I always add pepper because I like pepper but if you don’t want the pepper to overpower your other flavors.
6. Oil: Ratatouille usually calls for olive oil. The flavor of olive oil goes exceptionally well with ratatouille. Sometimes, though, recipes will call for another type. I would recommend sticking to a plant based oil which is a bit healthier for you and using as little as you can to keep the fat intake to a good level. My preference is to use an extra-virgin olive oil but most any olive oil works well and tastes good.
Quick and Easy Sauteed Ratatouille
1 tbsp olive oil
1 cup mushrooms, washed and sliced into 1/4 inch pieces (can omit if wanted)
2 to 3 peppers (yellow, red and/or orange; varying the colors is prettier), seedede and cut into 1 inch squares
1/2 cup chopped onions (frozen chopped onions work wonderfully)
one eggplant, about 8 inches in length and 4 inches in width
6 to 8 zucchini, about 6 to 8 inches in length, cut in half and then into 1/4 inch half moons (if using larger sizes, scoop out the seeds)
6 to 8 summer squash, about 6 to 8 inches in length, cut in half and then into 1/4 inch half moons (if using larger sizes, scoop out the seeds)
1 tbsp minced garlic
2 tsp dried basil or 1 to 2 cups loosely packed fresh basil
1 tsp dried oregano or 1/2 to 1 cup loosely packed fresh oregano
1/4 to 1/2 tsp black pepper, according to your tastes
3 cups petite diced tomatoes (if using canned, that’s about a 28 oz can)
1. Prepare all the vegetables first, washing, peeling, seeding and chopping and have them ready on hand to cook.
2. Heat olive oil for about 30 seconds in a large size pan over medium high heat or in a wok or in a deep dish griddle at 350 degree heat.
3. Add the mushrooms, peppers and onions to the olive oil and cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently.
4. Add the eggplant and cook for another 2 minutes, stirring occasionally.
5. Add the zucchini and squash and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant is greenish-purple.
6. Add the tomatoes, basil, oregano, garlic and black pepper and cook for 6 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender. (If you want a soupier ratatouille cook with a cover on. For a thicker ratatouille saute without a lid.)
7. Serve with reduced fat shredded cheddar cheese and crusty bread.