I have a repertoire of summer dishes that I don’t cook at any other time of year. Only when the veggies and fruit for these recipes are in their natural, regional prime do I return to my dog-eared cookbooks, magazines, and newspaper clippings to prepare them.
At the start of the summer, for instance, I make a dip of white beans garlic scapes; at mid-summer I look forward to pasta with zucchini, ricotta, and basil, and during the last weeks of summer, I cook with as much tomatoes and corn, as possible, such as a savory galette with corn, tomatoes, cheese, and basil.
Given how much I embrace the seasonality of produce, it’s odd, then, that it took me until this year to prepare a classic, ratatouille. You can’t get more of summer into this slick stew-like mix of vegetables, once a dish regional only to Nice: tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, peppers, onions, garlic, parsley, basil, and mint. All that seems to be missing is corn.
I had a bounty of these veggies, courtesy of a Sickles employee in the gardening department. Unlike me, who has no luck growing tomatoes (I might get kicked out of New Jersey for this ineptitude!), Ryan had a surfeit of candy-sweet grape tomatoes, Hungarian peppers, and wee eggplants. He generously shared them with us at work, and I filled a whole produce bag to take them home.
In my fridge they sat. It was a crime. The problem was that I had a lot of other veggies to use up and I found myself going out for al fresco meals more often than usual. Fearful that these seasonal treats would go to waste, I realized that I had to do something with them fast.
Ratatouille seemed perfect, because I could use everything up at once. And minus the olive oil, salt, and lemon, I could make this French dish completely New Jersey. Even the hot sauce— Mazi Piri-Piri—had Jersey origins!
I thought it was going to be quick and easy. After all, isn’t ratatouille just a simple jumble of summer vegetables all thrown into a pot and stewed? I discovered, however, while following a recipe from Fine Cooking, that making a proper one requires a lot of time. Each vegetable should be pan-seared separately so that their full flavors are coaxed out by cooking off their excess water. This can mean over an hour of preparation.
I can’t deny that it took a lot of time, but the results were undeniably delicious.
I encourage you to make ratatouille, too. And here are some tips to make its preparation less daunting. Follow the Fine Cooking recipe, but not too rigidly. If you don’t have enough zucchini, for instance, so be it. And if you don’t have red bell peppers, use something other pepper (I used the Hungarian wax ones that Ryan brought in for us). I didn’t have parsley so I just doubled up on the mint and basil. If you don’t have lemons, try a dash of vinegar. Acid helps balance the richness of this dish, which is not at all shy about calling for olive oil. To save a wee bit of time, don’t prep all the vegetables before heating up the skillet. Cut up one vegetable, and while it is sautéing, prepare the next vegetable bound for the pan. Do the same for the others.
The results are delicious and the essence of summer. Eat it just as is, perhaps as a side dish or appetizer, and use the leftovers to top tarts or pizzas, fill omelets, or toss with pasta on a hot summer’s evening.
Get cooking and enjoy summer!
Diana Pittet the veggie-loving cheesemonger