Ratatouille is a classic summer dish that originated in Nice and is ubiquitous throughout southern France. It is a simple stew of seasonal garden vegetables, scented with garlic, thyme, rosemary and basil. I make it often to conjure the glorious month I traveled with our eldest son through Provence.
There are no fixed recipes, just an agreement that a proper ratatouille contains the following vegetables — eggplant, bell pepper, zucchini, summer squash, onion, garlic and tomato.
The vegetables should be cooked thoroughly, “until there is just enough of the wonderful natural vegetable juices mixed together to coat them lightly,” writes cookbook author Madeleine Kamman in “When French Women Cook.”
“If you want a crunchy ratatouille, then you don’t want ratatouille. Instead take the same vegetables, less the eggplant, and make yourself a stir-fry.”
Most recipes recommend first sautéing the vegetables, then finishing the dish in a low oven. Except that it’s hot enough outside these days, and the last thing I want to do is add more heat to the kitchen. The alternative — cooking the entire dish on the stove, over a very low flame — seems to yield the same result. It is the perfect meal after a morning at the farmers market once you’ve unloaded those baskets brimming with the glorious harvest.
The proportions for the different ingredients are impossible to firmly fix because the vegetables vary so greatly in size and ripeness. There’s no specific technique, except to rough-chop everything and toss it into a deep skillet. No need to peel or seed the tomatoes because so much of the flavor is contained in the gel surrounding the seeds and the skin seems to just melt into the stew.
I prefer using a heavy 12-inch-deep skillet because a broad cooking surface speeds the cooking. A heavy deep pot will work equally well; simply increase the simmering time.
It’s important to cook the vegetables long enough that they meld together, become silky and their flavors integrate fully. It’s best served at room temperature with hunks of crusty bread and alongside grilled lamb, pork or sausages.
Leftovers are wonderful on top of pizza, tossed with pasta or folded into an omelet. Make a big batch and enjoy through the week, just as French women do.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.