Summer promises a bounty of sun-kissed vegetables — a cornucopia of tomatoes, peppers, squash and eggplant that beg to be put to use. This is not a problem. The trick is to lean in and rely upon recipes that embrace and celebrate the abundance of produce. One tried-and-true dish that does so is ratatouille. Ratatouille is the southern French staple that handily combines all of the garden's goodies layered in a terrine or simmered in a chunky, aromatic stew.
In the past, I never followed a recipe for ratatouille — I simply winged it and gathered whatever vegetables were on hand, then sauteed and simmered them together in a tomato-streaked stew. The results were usually thick and warm with a saucy compote consistency. Lately, however, I have taken a fresher, recipe-driven route, thanks to the chef Alice Waters.
In her ratatouille recipe, Waters cooks each vegetable individually as she slowly combines them into the stew. Her method showcases each vegetable and purposely keeps them intact, lightly bound together by the juice of fresh tomatoes. The spices are subtle, and the stew is infused with fresh basil, tied together in a simple bouquet garni (fresh herb sprigs tied with kitchen string), which is easily fetched and removed from the pot at the end of cooking. The result is a bright and fresh ratatouille, neither muddled nor overly sauced, and a perfectly light, summery complement to any meal.
I've tinkered just a little with the recipe, including thyme sprigs in the bouquet garni and finishing the ratatouille with a splash of fruity balsamic vinegar and plenty of black pepper for kick. This dish is best eaten within a day to preserve its fresh flavors. Try to keep the vegetables as uniform in size as possible when slicing and dicing.
Active time: 40 minutes
Total time: 1 hour
Yield: Serves 6 as a side dish
1 globe eggplant, about 1 1/2 pounds, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
2 red bell peppers, seeded, diced
2 narrow zucchini or yellow squash, halved lengthwise, cut into 1/2-inch thick moons
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1/4 teaspoon dried chile flakes
4 medium vine-ripened tomatoes, diced
4 sprigs fresh basil and 2 sprigs fresh thyme, tied together with kitchen string
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Fresh basil leaves, torn, for garnish
Place the eggplant in a colander. Generously season with salt and toss to coat. Place the colander in a bowl or in your sink and let stand for 30 minutes. Blot the eggplant dry with paper towels.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the eggplant and cook until soft and tinged golden, about 8 minutes. If the pot dries out too quickly, add more oil as needed. Transfer the eggplant to a bowl.
Add 2 more tablespoons oil to the pot. Add the onion and cook over medium heat until soft, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the peppers and continue to cook until the peppers are crisp-tender, about 3 minutes. Add the squash and cook until bright and crisp-tender, about 3 to 4 minutes more. Stir in the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and the bouquet garni and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently.
Stir in the eggplant and continue to cook until all of the vegetables are soft, 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove and discard the bouquet garni. Add the balsamic vinegar, 1 teaspoon salt (or to taste) and black pepper, and taste for seasoning.
Serve warm or at room temperature garnished with basil.