Iowa City, Iowa — We’re visiting family in the Midwest, and today is another in a series of 90-plus-degree scorchers. Hot stew on a hot summer day? The idea sounds absurd, if not downright tortured. The usual loyal kitchen helpers are likely to scatter the moment you crank up the stove. No doubt you’ll be left chopping and stirring in solitude. No worries. Ratatouille is a simple dish, just right for one cook. Use vine-ripened tomatoes, tender-skinned squash and sweet peppers, plus plenty of garlic and onion. Sauté each vegetable in olive oil, one at a time, then stir them all together in a sturdy pot and simmer the mixture, so the flavors commingle in a magical way.
If ever there was a stew for summer, this is it. You can make ratatouille other times of year—with mid-winter hothouse tomatoes and perfect-looking (a bit too) zucchini shipped from south of the border. Infused with garlic and fresh herbs, it’s likely to turn out well even with a pile of bland, off-season vegetables. Still, August is when this dish soars.
As you happily stir, enveloped in your aromatic cloud, don’t be surprised if curious helpers return, one by one, drawn to the steamy epicenter by a fault line of garlicky perfume that’s cascaded full-force through the house. They won’t resist poking their noses in the direction of the pot, even if that means tussling with a blast of fiery vapor. One can always shed a layer of clothing, if necessary. Or down a cold drink. Even stand in front of an shamefully open freezer. Resisting these tomato-bathed vegetables is another matter.
Simmer up a pot of ratatouille when summer tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini or peppers come calling. It could be the best thing that’s happened all day. Maybe even all week. Even a hot one.
Summer Garden Ratatouille
We have a robust crop of scarlet runner beans in our California garden, and they’re a nice addition to this pot. Add the shelled beans, or a drained can of white beans, to the mix in step four, if you like. An easy way to peel tomatoes is to boil water in a small saucepan, turn off the heat, then plunge tomatoes into the hot water. Let them bob for 30 seconds or so. Remove by piercing the stem end with a fork and lifting carefully. Cool for a minute or two, then peel. The skin will practically slide off.
This French classic can be served hot or cold. If you’re facing toasty weather, cook the dish early in the day, then serve it at room temperature for the evening meal. All you need to add is a loaf of crusty bread and a leafy green salad. Luckily there’s nothing hot involved in that.
- Olive oil
- 2 medium zucchini (or equivalent amount of other summer squash), cut crosswise into half-inch rounds.
- 1 small globe eggplant (or equivalent amount of another variety), peeled and cut into one-inch cubes
- 1 bell pepper, cored and cubed
- 3 or 4 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded and cubed
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- Fresh basil leaves
- Heat one tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add zucchini to the pan and sauté for a couple of minutes until the squash begin to brown. Remove from the pan and add eggplant. Sauté eggplant in the same manner (add more oil as necessary to the pan), then remove from the pan and set aside.
- Add one more tablespoon oil to the pan plus the peppers and onions. Cook for 10 minutes until vegetables are soft, and onion just begins to brown. Stir frequently during cooking.
- Add tomatoes to the onion/pepper mixture and cook until tomatoes are soft and begin to break apart, about 5 minutes.
- Add garlic, oregano, thyme, one half teaspoon salt and a few pinches of freshly ground pepper, plus the cooked squash and eggplant. Stir the vegetables gently to combine and cook on medium-low heat for 15 – 20 minutes.
- Tear the basil leaves and fold them into the stew before serving. Taste for salt and pepper, and add more if needed.
- For an easy eggplant dip, cube the peeled fruit, along with some cubed peppers and onion, then toss with minced garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper and roast until tender (about 30 minutes at 375). Cool slightly, then purée in a food processor with a tablespoon or so of tomato paste. Spread on toasted bread and garnish with torn basil leaves.
- Grilled slices of eggplant (lightly oiled) and layer with fresh tomato slices, a few torn kalamata olives, basil leaves and goat cheese on a toasted roll.
- Summer tomatoes need little more than a sprinkling of salt, but try tossing some into a cool yogurt raita for a change of pace.
- Roast or grill the peppers, peel if you like, then chop and add to potato salad or a pasta or grain salad. Layer them on a sandwich or stir into rice pilaf. Roasting vegetables caramelizes the sugars in a simple yet extraordinarily tasty way.
- Avocado adds something to nearly any sandwich. There’s nothing simpler than toasting bread, spreading with some mayo then layering avocado, tomato and lettuce leaves on top. Add some crisp bacon for a twist on an American classic.