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Summer is time for ratatouille

Ratatouille is a very versatile dish (Provided photo — Yvona Fast)

This traditional Provencal dish is made with the season’s abundance of tomatoes, eggplant, and summer squash, along with onions, garlic, peppers and herbs. It is usually seasoned with Herbes de Provence, a mix of basil, thyme, savory and fennel, but other herbs can be used too. Other veggies can be added — experiment with green and wax beans, chard stems, celery, carrots, mushrooms, olives — but are not necessary or traditional. Eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes are all plentiful at farmers markets, so now is the perfect time to make this light Mediterranean dish.

Because it is a mixture of vegetables with herbs and a little olive oil, ratatouille is a relatively low-calorie, healthy treat. Cut back on olive oil or replace it with a litte red wine if you’re watching your weight. Add a little cheese if you don’t mind the extra fat and calories.

The delicious blend of veggies is attributed to France’s Provence region. The name derives from the French touiller, to stir, because everything is combined together as in a stew. It has cousins throughout southern Europe; it is similar to Spanish pisto manchego and Italian caponata (which also combines eggplant, onions, peppers, and garlic in a tomato sauce).

The dish is a relatively modern creation, first mentioned in 1778. Tomatoes, peppers and squash are all New World foods that were not known in Europe until the 17th Century. The first printed recipe appeared in La Cuisine a Nice in 1930. Ratatouille gained in popularity through the 20th Century, and now is common on restaurant menus throughout Europe.

The beauty of ratatouille is there are so many ways to make and serve it! It can be a thick stew or thinned into a soup. It can be served hot or cold as a side dish for meat. Add meat or beans, and it becomes a one-pan easy skillet. It makes an excellent vegetarian sauce for pasta, with a great depth of flavor. It can be chilled and stirred into pasta salad. Try it baked as a casserole. Turn it into a tart shell and top with olives and cheese. Put it in a crust and top with a custard of eggs, milk and cheese for a quiche. Use it as a pizza topping, to spread on bruschetta, or even as a filling for savory crepes or an omelet. On a hot day, serve it cold as a salad.

However you serve it, the dish is simple to make though the prep work is key. It is best to slice and chop all the vegetables before you begin. It is an easy dish for a large gathering or potluck because you can easily make a llarge batch. Can or freeze leftovers for later use.

Ratatouille can be prepared fairly quickly by cooking everything together at the same time. It can be cooked on the stove, in a crockpot, or in the oven.

However, some feel that roasting or grilling all the vegetables separately before combining adds a depth of flavor. Julia Child likes to layer the ingredients, sautéing the eggplant and zucchini separately in olive oil, and making a sauce from the tomatoes, onions, garlic and sweet bell peppers. These ingredients are then layered in a casserole and baked in the oven.

Easy Stovetop

Ratatouille Stew

For ease of preparation, cut up all the ingredients ahead of time.

Ingredients:

2 medium eggplants (about 2 pounds)

1 teaspoon salt

4 onions (about 2 cups, diced)

2 – 4 Tablespoons olive oil

1/4 cup red wine or broth (or more, as needed)

3 cloves garlic

2 medium zucchini (one yellow and one green for a nice color combination)

2 – 3 large tomatoes

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1 teaspoon basil

1 teaspoon thyme

1/2 teaspoon savory

1/2 teaspoon fennel

Directions:

Cut eggplants into cubes. Toss with a tablespoon of salt and place in a colander over the sink.

Heat oil in skillet. Peel and dice the onion, and add. Sprinkle with salt Cook 5 minutes, covered, over low heat. Rinse the eggplant and add. Cook on low about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add a little red wine or broth if it begins to stick.

Mince the garlic and add. Chop the zucchini and tomatoes, and add. Add herbs. Cook 15 minutes longer, until vegetables are soft.

Serve as a side.

For a vegetarian main course, stir in 1 1/2 cups cooked beans (garbanzo or navy beans both go well) and 1 cup grated cheese, and serve over pasta.

This makes a lot –serves 4 – 6.

Ratatouille Salad

Got leftovers? Add them to a salad along with some pasta and fresh greens. Makes a nice lunch or simple supper.

Ingredients:

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 garlic clove, crushed

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon chopped basil (fresh if possible)

1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1 small head lettuce

1 bunch scallions, washed and sliced

1 cup ditalini or orzo pasta, cooked according to package directions

Leftover ratatouille

Crumbled Feta or grated Parmesan, optional

Directions:

Combine first five ingredients in salad bowl. Add shredded lettuce, sliced scallions, and cooked pasta; toss to combine.

Place salad in individual bowls. Top each serving with a dollop of chilled ratatouille and a sprinkle of cheese.

Serve with French baguette.

Serves 2 – 4 depending on serving size.

Baked Ratatouille Casserole

Ingredients:

2 medium eggplants (about 2 pounds)

2 medium zucchini

5 onions

1 sweet bell pepper

3 cloves garlic

1/4 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

2 – 3 large tomatoes

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1 teaspoon basil

1 teaspoon thyme

1/2 teaspoon savory

1/2 teaspoon tarragon

1 cup shredded cheese

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400.

Cube eggplant. Sprinkle with salt and mix. After 30 minutes, rinse well.

In bowl, combine eggplant with oil. Stir to coat. Spread on a baking sheet and roast about 20 minutes. Cube zucchini, sprinkle with salt and pepper, coat with olive oil and stir in to the roasting eggplant. Continue roasting 10 minutes longer.

While vegetables are oven-roasting, in saucepan, cook onions in remaining oil over low heat 10 – 15 minutes. Stir in diced bell pepper and garlic and cook 5 minutes longer. Add herbs, tomatoes and a little salt, and cook 15 more minutes.

Place eggplant and zucchini in casserole dish. Pour tomato mixture over all. Top with grated cheese and bake 15 minutes or until bubbly.

Author of the award-winning cookbook Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market, Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com, yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on Facebook as Words are my world.

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