Roasted vegetable ratatouille

July 9th, 2019

a bowl of ratatouille with silverware and roasted breadWe think stew; we see meat. But, to groaningly paraphrase the apostle Paul about stews, “And now these three remain: Bourgignon, goulash, and ratatouille. But the greatest of these is ratatouille.”

No meat.

Every country that grows vegetables offers up a recipe for ratatouille (RAT-uh-TOO-ee). Given a few more years of rising temperatures, I fancy Greenland will add its version to the library.

The ratatouille that we know originated in Provence. Its list of ingredients is a painter’s palette of southern France: eggplant, tomato, summer squash, red bell pepper, and the herbs oregano, thyme, and basil.

Related:

Cooking with fresh herbs, explained

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To these, for their part, the Italians add potatoes and carrots; Sicilians, celery and capers. Catalans fry their ratatouille-style vegetables, layering them in a dish that they call tumbet. To their versions of ratatouille, countries along the northern arc of Africa often add legumes such as the chickpea (garbanzo) or dried yellow pea. And they spice up the stew with chili pepper concoctions such as ras el hanout (a North African spice mixture of cinnamon, cumin, coriander, cardamom, nutmeg and ginger) or harissa.

As I say, every country has its turn.

The dish, always made well ahead of service, is perfect picnic fare, served out of doors at ambient temperature just as it is inside at dining room tables year ‘round. It’s sometimes even delicious cool or cold, depending on how emphatic are the original flavors of its raw ingredients.

The recipe here is for a decidedly straightforward ratatouille because the vegetables are roasted before the final flourish of fresh basil or parsley. Roasting caramelizes vegetables, in addition to evaporating much of their (flavor diluting) moisture. The vegetables are also chunked into larger pieces so that the ratatouille better holds its shapes than the stirred, stewed, stovetop version made for indoors dining.

You might be able to eat most of it merely with your fingers. Not much more picnic-y than that, eh?

Other spins to take with ratatouille, inspired by other regions’ recipes:

Spice it up: Vegetable stews call for more and different spices and herbs as flavor supplements than those used in traditional meat stews. So, find that ras el hanout or harissa at a Mediterranean market. Or add sweet, hot or smoked paprika; a splash of rice or white wine vinegar; or flavor seeds such as coriander, yellow mustard or green cardamom.

Herbs: This is the time (in a recipe and at a season) for a lavish hand with herbs such as basil, oregano (or marjoram), flat-leaf parsley or summer savory. During the cooking of the ratatouille, heated green herbs such as these add a “dark” dimension; at the end, as a fresh garnish or sprinkle, they add their brightness. Why not do both?

Things farinaceous: While beans and some legumes don’t fit in with most meat-based stews, they’re terrific in vegetable stews such as ratatouille, either whole or pureed, where they not only add flavor but thicken.

Remember, above all, that the one very nice aspect about ratatouille, and its several versions, is that it is delicious warm, at room or ambient temperature, and even slightly cooled.

Roasted vegetable ratatouille

Serves 8, easily multiplied to serve more.

Ingredients

2 medium white, yellow, or red onions, peeled and quartered

2 small to medium, or 1 large, European eggplant, cut into 1 and 1/2-inch cubes, peel on

2 red bell peppers, stemmed and seeded, cut into 1-inch strips

4 medium summer squashes such as zucchini or yellow Italian, or any mix of same, cut into 1 and 1/2-inch chunks, most of peel left on

1/3 cup good quality but not overly “green” extra-virgin olive oil

Hefty amounts of kosher salt and ground black pepper, to taste

10-15 cloves garlic, peeled, whole

1 heaping tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary, oregano, or thyme, or (better) a mix of all three

1 and 1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes, cut into large chunks or wedges, lightly squeezed of seeds, peel on (or equivalent in canned whole, drained, uncrushed)

15 small or 10 medium basil leaves, casually torn, or the equivalent in flat-leaf parsley, or a mix of both.

Directions

Heat the oven to 450 degrees. In a very large bowl, toss the onions, eggplant, peppers, and squashes in the olive oil and salt and pepper. On 2 baking sheets lined with parchment paper (or slicked with more olive oil), scatter the vegetables, being sure that they do not touch much (or else they will steam instead of brown). Keep aside and handy the bowl in which they have been tossed. Roast the vegetables for 30 minutes or until they are beginning to brown.

Lower the oven temperature to 400. Add the garlic cloves and the herbs to the large bowl and slick with the remaining oil and salt and pepper. Remove the sheets from the oven, shake them or stir up the vegetable pieces, and then scatter in the garlic cloves and herbs. Roast for another 20 minutes.

Remove the sheets from the oven and scatter in the tomatoes. Roast for another 20 minutes. Remove everything and allow to cool down to warm; put into carrying containers, well mixed, along with the basil, and serve.

Bill St. John has written and taught about restaurants, food, cooking and wine for more than 40 years, locally for Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post and KCNC-TV Channel 4, nationally for Chicago Tribune Newspapers and Wine & Spirits magazine. The Denver native lives in his hometown. Contact Bill at billstjohn@gmail.com

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s sidewalk.com. In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.