I can’t say I’ve actually followed a recipe for ratatouille, but I figured out how to make it long ago based on a description in M.F.K. Fisher’s “Long Ago in France: The Dijon Years.” Every summer on blistering hot afternoons, her stories transport me to the glorious hills of Burgundy, the scents of lavender and rosemary on cooling breezes.
Fisher advised cooks: “The proportions of the garden vegetables are impossible to fix firmly since everything changes in size and flavor.” So, it is the perfect carefree dish to devise after a morning at the farmers market with baskets brimming, the countertops and table piled high with the colorful harvest.
In this rustic vegetable stew, the ingredients are simply “thrown down ruthlessly” into the pot and cooked in a gentle, low oven for “as long as one wishes,” at least four hours, or better yet, all day long, until it becomes “a thick, goopy mass.”
My version calls for a garden mix of eggplant, zucchini, peppers, onions, lots of garlic, fresh garden herbs and a dash of vinegar to perk up the flavors. While you can shorten the cooking time by increasing the oven’s heat, the longer and slower process yields a silky texture and fully integrated flavors. This is a dish best made a day or two ahead so that everything has a chance to meld. Serve it warm or at room temperature with hunks of good, dense and crusty bread. You might add a few grilled sausages, too. Leftovers are wonderful on top of pizza or tossed with pasta or folded into a simple omelet or served cold, scooped up with pita bruschetta. It is the classic summer food.
Beth Dooley is a Minneapolis author and cooking instructor.