BWW Cooks: End of Summer Produce Means Ratatouille, France's Easiest Classic Dish

It's late summer. You're being gifted with shopping bags full of tomatoes, and zucchini that could be large blunt instruments for murder weapons. Fried green tomatoes - done. Zucchini bread - done. Chocolate zucchini cake - done, and nobody ate it. And friends are knocking at the door with more backyard booty, or you just found the perfect new roadside farmer's market - what to make, what to do?

And perhaps you're not sure you're the world's best cook, or you feel uninspired when faced with one more batch of vegetables staring back at you on the kitchen counter.

The answer is ratatouille, France's delicious vegetable stew that is also the most forgiving recipe ever. It can be served cooked briefly, vegetables still intact and independently colorful, or stewed longer so that the vegetables begin to melt together. If you don't have one vegetable, another may well do. If you want, you can slice and roast vegetables first in the oven, or you can even bake it rather than stew it on the stovetop. There are some Italian versions as well, most quite similar to eggplant caponata.

The basic usual ingredients? Two eggplant. Two small to medium zucchini or yellow summer squash. Two onions. Two bell peppers, any colors. About two cups of chopped, unpeeled tomatoes. The only thing that needs to be peeled is the onion, before it's diced. Dice eggplant into bite-sized pieces and place them in a strainer, tossed with about ¼ cup of kosher salt; set it in a bowl or in the sink. In half an hour, the bitter juices will have drained out; rinse the cubes off and pat dry with a paper towel. Sautee onions and peppers, preferably with a few sprigs of thyme as well as two cloves of garlic. Once done, set aside, and sautee the eggplant until it begins to brown. Set that aside as well, and do the same with the zucchini. Now cook your tomatoes, and watch the juices run and begin to boil. Add a bay leaf if you like - very French - and a bit of freshly chopped basil. Salt and pepper go in now, if you haven't added them automatically. Add the other vegetables, stir well, and simmer - twenty to thirty minutes for bright colorful ratatouille with large pieces of vegetable and a thin broth, up to two hours for a thick ratatouille that begins to meld all the vegetables together.

Options? There are ever so many. For sautéing, olive oil is classic, but I have used soybean oil, avocado oil, and butter all to fine effect as well. You have an extra eggplant? Put it in. An extra tomato? The same. No zucchini? Substitute carrot - or add carrot anyway; it's an accepted variation. No bay leaves? No worries. You like mushrooms? Add some thickly sliced baby portabellas, sautéing them as well as the other vegetables first. It seems dry? Add a little red wine or port, both of which go well with the tomatoes. It needs thickening? A dab of tomato paste. Japanese eggplant work as well as the larger ones, and any color or type of tomato will work - Roma, heirloom, cut-up cherry tomatoes from the neighbor. You'd like it a bit more Italian? Add some oregano. A bit more French? Add some rosemary along with the thyme. You have canned tomatoes instead? Perfect! There is no "true" recipe for ratatouille except for eggplant, onion and tomato as the base, and whatever else a French maman has in her vegetable garden or finds at market for the rest. You can do the same yourself, at your produce stand, in your supermarket, or with the neighbors' best. It will all work deliciously.

Perhaps you like it a bit drier? Drain the tomato juices a bit when cooking the tomatoes, and bake the ratatouille in the oven. Or slice, rather than dice, tomatoes and zucchini; whether oven roasted first or not, lay them in patterns on top of the stewed eggplant and onion, then bake.

However you make it, it will be delicious when you eat it the first day. But you will not be prepared for the stupendous flavor it will develop overnight, for, like soup, the second day is when the miracle of flavor occurs. It will keep a few days in the refrigerator, or if you have used up the garden, you may freeze it. Serve it hot, serve it warm, serve it at room temperature or even chilled; as there is no one "right" recipe, there is also no one right way to serve it.

Serve in bowls with crusty bread, or alongside potatoes or rice. A thick but chunky ratatouille can top a heavy pasta; Rachael Ray has one such recipe. Leftover ratatouille may be served atop fried polenta, or mixed into a frittata. Perhaps you would prefer couscous, or freekeh, with your ratatouille? But of course; serve it as you wish. No grain dish is wrong on the side. Or serve the ratatouille as a side dish - it is classic accompanying a rosemary grilled or baked chicken. Jamie Oliver serves it with sliced grilled steak and saffron rice. Pork tenderloin and pork chops go well with it. Leftover meat can be mixed into vegetable ratatouille to create a meat stew. And its intense flavor makes it a natural side dish to serve with a strongly-flavored fish like salmon - another classic pairing. Vegetarian entrée or meat side dish; stew, pasta sauce, or frittata filling; all are correct.

The only wrong ratatouille is the one you do not make. Those zucchini you brought in and those beefsteak tomatoes waiting to be picked are begging you to do it. Go ahead; you cannot make a wrong ratatouille. And if you think your children don't like some of the vegetables that are in it, you'll likely have a huge surprise - as will they - when they taste it. You'll only wish you'd discovered it earlier in the season.

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From This Author Marakay Rogers

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