Don’t the French words for eggplants and zucchinis seem more evocative of the summer bounty?
I can imagine kitchen counters throughout homes in Provence strewn with these oblong purple and dark green beauties, along with other ripe jewels from the sun-drenched garden: plum tomatoes and sweet red peppers. I can imagine cooks ducking into the cool of these kitchens to examine the pick-of-the-day, formulating a plan for a good meal. And, I feel certain that each takes pride in her own recipe for that traditional Provencal dish, ratatouille.
At its core, the vegetables remain constant: eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, bell peppers, onion. Garlic, the Provencal mainstay, goes without saying. Cooking techniques and seasonings vary widely.
How the vegetables are cut makes a difference: small dice, or thin slices, sauteed in a stewpot in stages or simply tossed together with abandon and simmered for hours.
The spicing tells a story, too. High in the rugged countryside, the floral notes of lavender would find their way into the dish. There could be Italian border crossings that introduce basil. Along the Mediterranean coast, Greek influences might prevail. Some swear by a pinch of cinnamon, others season with a little anise. And, don’t forget a fleck of hot red pepper flakes for fiery bite.
Like the Provencal cooks I’ve conjured, I’ve prepared ratatouille many many ways–always seeking another variation when the market baskets brim with these veggies. Over the years, my roasted “rat-a-tat stack” has become my go-to. It’s the caramelization that occurs in the oven-roast that makes it so appealing. I like the layered aspect; each vegetable maintains its integrity, yet melds in the final bake.
We also eat with our eyes, and this assembly provides a visual feast. The line-up of ingredients on sheet pans, ready-to-roast, is a modern art mosaic.
Post roasting, they make a pretty mandala of color arranged in the cast iron skillet.
If you’d like to depart from tradition, you could spread ricotta between some of the layers, or sprinkle some grated parmesan cheese. This would serve to really solidify the stack. But I like the deep candied vegetal flavors, unencumbered by the richness of dairy. The caramel-like juices come together in the final bake, tout ensemble.
Enjoy with some crusty bread. Thank you aubergines, courgettes, good cooks of Provence. We relish your ratatouille straight out of the hot skillet for supper, or scarcely warmed the next day at lunch. SantÃ©!
ROASTED RATATOUILLE STACK
2 Eggplants (medium large)
2 Zucchinis (medium large)
4 Tomatoes (try 2 yellow and 2 red, with a smatter of roma and cherry tomatoes)
1 large Onion
2 Red Bell Peppers
4 cloves Garlic
Black Pepper, a pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
Fresh Basil—a few sprigs
3 Baking sheet pans
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Slice eggplants lengthwise, about 1/4″ thick, and layout on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Brush with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper. Slice zucchinis in similar fashion, and layout on a separate (lightly oiled) sheet pan. Brush and season.
On the third sheet pan, place the cored tomatoes, cut in half, along with the onion, garlic, and seeded red bell pepper halves.
Roast the vegetables until : (15-20 minutes)
edges of the eggplants and zucchinis are browned
skins of the tomatoes and peppers are blistered
Remove the skins of the tomatoes, peppers, garlic. Coarsely chop 2 of the roasted tomato halves with the garlic. Season with some red pepper flakes, if you like.
Brush the bottom of a casserole dish or cast iron skillet with olive oil, and layer the roasted vegetables in this order:
Chopped tomatoes w/ garlic
Repeat the layering. If using the cast-iron skillet (or round casserole dish) Lay the pieces in circular mandala-like design.
Bake in 325 degree oven for 20 minutes to “anneal” the layers, deepen the rich flavors.