Ratatouille, reinvented

Originally published on culturebitch.com, August 6, 2009

One thing I love about where I live is the abundance of farmers’ markets from which to choose. I’m lucky enough to have two during the week right near my office, as well as one a short walk from my house on Saturday mornings, which means from May to October, I can spend much less time at my local supermarket. Which makes me very happy, as I’m coming to detest supermarkets lately, but that’s for another blog entry.

Aside from getting delicious fresh veggies and supporting local farmers, a wonderful benefit of shopping the markets is that you get more in tune with what’s in season throughout the year. This is the first year I have discovered the wonders of Swiss chard – the red variety particularly. Sautéed with garlic, fresh nutmeg and folded into a gruyère tart, it is sublime.

The greens have been out in the markets for a while, but what I’ve really been waiting for are the first zucchini, tomatoes and eggplants to make their appearance. Along with some basil, these are the foundations of any good ratatouille, a staple dish in the south of France and, with a slight reinvention, now in our household.

While ratatouille is typically a side dish, it’s been so humid lately that I was not in the mood to cook much and thought it would be good as the main dish for dinner the other night. I didn’t think to pick up a baguette on the way home, which would have been my accompaniment of choice, so I turned to my second-favorite carb: pasta. Having perused a good number of ratatouille recipes in the past (which, among French chefs, appear to have infinite variations), I went back to a recipe from Jacques Pepin’s Cuisine Economique. Rather than slices, he cuts the vegetables into (roughly) 1/2 inch pieces (so they are about all the same). The recipe is also unique in that it is a simpler, faster assembly – just what I was looking for on a hot weeknight.

Using Jacques’ recipe as a base, but with a few variations, this became a phenomenally simple and delicious sauce for penne rigate. So delicious that Rob commented, twice, “this is really good, we should make this again!”  The amounts below made just enough for a hearty dinner for two, with a bit leftover for a solo lunch the next day (which, I might add, was even tastier).

Ratatouille Pasta

1 small onion
1/2 green bell pepper
1 small or 1/2 large zucchini
1 small eggplant
crushed red pepper, to taste
dried thyme, about 1/2 tsp
salt & pepper to taste
1 large ripe tomato
6-8 cloves of garlic
large handful of basil leaves, ripped, chopped or chiffonaded (however fancy you’re feeling)

Sauté the onion and bell pepper first in a large skillet with a generous amount of olive oil for about 3-4 minutes until soft, then add the zucchini, eggplant, and spices. Cook over a med/low flame for 15-20 minutes; enough liquid comes out of the veggies that they shouldn’t scorch, but stir them now and then to prevent any sticking. Meanwhile, boil whatever pasta you’re using.

Towards the end of the cooking, add the tomatoes & garlic; cook another minute or two, then toss in about a glassful of white wine. Let this simmer on low for a few more minutes, then add your cooked pasta to the skillet (save some of the cooking water in case you need to enhance the sauce). Add the basil, toss to be sure everything is mixed well, and serve with, bien sur, a cold glass of provençal rosé. Santé!

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