Ratatouille: Eggplant and Tomatoes as Partners (even in winter) by Cyndy Crist
It must be eggplant season somewhere, because last Saturday Whole Foods Market had at least six different sizes and varieties of eggplants. There were the round, green and white Thai beauties; long, skinny purple Japanese eggplants; that lovely pink and white striped kind (I think they were Rosa Bianca, an Italian heirloom variety); and your “typical” large, purple Globe eggplant.
But what caught my eye were little purple babies about the shape and size of eggs (hmmm, does that tell us something about the English name for this vegetable that the French call aubergines?). I couldn’t resist their glossy, smooth beauty, so I scooped up eight or ten of them and immediately began thinking about how to prepare them.
My mind went first to ratatouille, which I find to be one of the easiest and best things to do with eggplants. Ratatouille is commonly made with eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, onions, and summer squash. I took a quick mental inventory and remembered that I had some decent Roma tomatoes at home and some grape tomatoes that were not long for this world. I always have onions and garlic on hand. I also had a hydroponic basil plant whose demise was clearly imminent, and I was pretty sure I had a couple of summer squash in the fridge, but since they were old enough to be of uncertain quality, I picked up a couple of firm, blemish-free little zucchini just in case I’d need them. I was all set.
There was no question about how I would prepare my ratatouille. I have found that I get the best flavor and texture when I roast it, that process seeming to deepen the flavors and keep the pieces from collapsing into mush. Roasting also helps solve the problem of eggplant’s tendency to soak up olive oil as fast as it’s poured into the pan. That was two decisions made.
Near dinner time, I cut each vegetable into pieces of roughly the same size to ensure that they would cook evenly. I crushed and sliced the garlic (I find that if it’s cut too small, it often burns, but if I leave the cloves whole, the flavor doesn’t “spread” through the whole dish as much as I like). I finished by tearing the basil leaves into pieces and scattering them over the top, sprinkling it with Maldon salt and freshly ground black pepper, drizzling good olive oil over it all, and then tossing it with my hands (as they say, clean hands can be a cook’s best tool).
I decided to roast my ratatouille at 350 degrees rather than a higher temperature to avoid the risk of burning the tender vegetables, and I checked it every 15 minutes or so until it was done. In all, it took about 45 minutes to roast to the point at which the pieces were largely intact but nicely softened and the flavors somewhat melded (though another advantage of roasting is that I think each vegetable retains some of its own distinct taste rather than getting lost into a kind of amalgam of flavor).
The lovely thing about a dish like this, of course, is that you can use what you have on hand and/or what you like. Although it’s traditional to use peppers, I had decided not to do that this time. Any of the ingredients I used could have been left out (though to my mind it couldn’t be called ratatouille without at least most of these ingredients, but as the Bard said, what’s in a name?).
There is also no need to measure. I wanted roughly equal amounts of the main ingredients, but I could easily have used more of one and less of another vegetable as I preferred. I could also have roasted it for a longer time at a lower temperature or hurried the results by using a higher temperature and a shorter time. And I could have used an herb other than, or in addition to, the basil if I had wished, oregano and rosemary being two likely choices.
When it was done, I sprinkled the last of a container of grated Parmesan and Romano cheese on the hot ratatouille to melt deliciously over and into the whole mixture, but I could have used any cheese I liked, or none at all. Because I was having dinner alone while my husband was out, I did my favorite thing and fried an egg to serve on top. I had considered serving the ratatouille over rice and could have done that quickly, since I usually keep a couple of pouches of the pre-cooked rice mixtures packaged by Trader Joe’s and Seeds of Change in my pantry (I know, I know, rice is easy to cook, but sometimes being able to heat up a toothsome and nicely seasoned pouch of rice in the microwave in under two minutes is too handy to resist). But all I could find was a version with Indian spices, which didn’t fit my mood. Besides, the egg sounded just right. All in all, it was a nutritious and satisfying meal.
Ratatouille is a dish I most often make in late summer when I can buy all of the ingredients locally at the Farmers’ Market. But as I said earlier, it’s obviously eggplant season some place and I was quite pleased with the quality of all of the ingredients I found. On top of that, I was able to use several things in my kitchen that would soon have been past their “best buy” dates, something that gives me an absurd amount of satisfaction in this throw-away culture. I was even able to use one of the “old” yellow squash.
I do try to be a locavore, but sometimes my appetite gets the better of me, and when I can get a result as good as what I enjoyed this time, I’m hard pressed to apologize. Still, please don’t tell Alice Waters.