Ratatouille, an aromatic casserole of eggplant, zucchini, peppers, onions and tomatoes, is a classic that has withstood the test of time. Originally from Nice on the French Riviera, this luscious vegetable stew is often made at home in France and is popular in restaurants and charcuteries throughout the country. Vegetarians make a meal of ratatouille with bread, rice or pasta, or roll it in a crepe. Meat-eaters serve it with grilled or roast chicken, lamb, beef or veal.
Part of the reason for ratatouille's popularity is that the recipe is very forgiving. If you cook ratatouille a little too long, nothing bad will happen; the vegetables are supposed to be tender.
Some cooks prefer to use roughly equal amounts of each vegetable; others recommend doubling the tomatoes. Green beans, potatoes and mushrooms also find their way into some ratatouille pots. Garlic and olive oil are the essential flavorings, and any herbs in season, especially thyme and fresh basil, can be incorporated.
I have met French chefs who insist that you fry each vegetable separately. This is time-consuming, however, and tends to make the ratatouille rather oily. To simplify the preparation, I stew the onions, peppers and zucchini together. I cook the eggplant separately, but usually with a combination of sauteing and steaming, because it's easier than frying and requires less oil. When I use fresh tomatoes, I peel them and cook them briefly before combining them with the other vegetables. For a shortcut, I substitute diced canned tomatoes.
In the Balkan countries, there's a similar vegetable casserole that takes its name from the Turkish earthenware pot it's traditionally cooked in, the guvec . In Bulgarian it's called givetch ; in Romanian, ghiveciu ; in Greek, youvetsi . Givetch starts out with sauteed eggplant, tomatoes, peppers and onions, but then these vegetables are layered with uncooked vegetables--any combination of carrots, okra, zucchini, celery, green beans and potatoes--and baked. During winter, givetch takes on a different tone; mushrooms, cauliflower, turnips, parsnips or dried beans might enter the pot.
Hot pepper flakes, garlic and parsley are customary seasonings for givetch ; paprika, dill, thyme or rosemary might also be used. Givetch can be vegetarian or can be cooked with beef or lamb cubes or spicy sausages. Some versions are garnished at the last moment with green grapes.
Although neither of these casseroles cooks quickly, both are very convenient. Prepare them in large amounts and keep them in the freezer, ready to pop into the microwave to reheat. You can serve them with baked or fried eggs on top; an English friend of mine does this with Ratatouille and calls the dish "ratty eggs." Tarte a la ratatouille is a fairly recent use of the stew in Paris, in which it becomes a filling for a savory pastry shell. Or try other nontraditional uses: Turn ratatouille into a topping for pizza, toss ratatouille or givetch with spaghetti or rice, or use either stew as a filling for tortillas or pita breads.
Both Ratatouille and givetch are delicious cold, and can be served as a salad, antipasto or side dish. Either can be a cool, light summer meal if served on a bed of lettuce and accompanied by a little feta or goat cheese, hard-cooked eggs or thin slices of smoked turkey breast.
This aromatic vegetable stew with garlic and herbs is one of the glories of Provencal cooking. It's wonderful hot or cold as a main dish or as a partner for grilled fish, chicken or steak. Naturally it's at its best in summer, when tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and zucchini are at their peak. You might like to garnish it with fresh basil.
5 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped, or 2 (28-ounce) cans plum tomatoes, drained and chopped
Salt, freshly ground black pepper
1 bay leaf
1 large onion, halved and thinly sliced
1 sweet red pepper and 1 green pepper, cut into 1/2-inch strips
3 to 4 small zucchini, cut into 3/8-inch slices
1 small or medium eggplant (3/4 to 1 pound), peeled, if desired, cut into 3/4-inch dice
3 large garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary or 1/2 teaspoon dried
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in heavy medium saucepan. Add tomatoes, salt and pepper to taste and bay leaf and cook over medium-high heat, stirring often, 15 minutes. Remove bay leaf and set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in large wide casserole. Add onions and saute 5 minutes over low heat. Add peppers and saute over medium-low heat, stirring often, about 7 minutes. Add zucchini and cook over low heat until barely tender, about 5 minutes. Transfer vegetables to bowl.
Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in casserole. Add eggplant cubes and salt and pepper to taste and saute over medium heat, stirring, about 3 minutes. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, until tender, 7 minutes. Return zucchini-pepper mixture to eggplant in casserole.
Stir garlic, rosemary and thyme into tomatoes. Add to casserole and mix gently. Bring to boil. Cover and simmer over low heat 5 minutes. Uncover and cook over medium-high heat until thickened and all vegetables are tender, 5 minutes. Stir in basil. Taste and adjust seasonings. Season generously with pepper. Serve hot or cold. Makes 4 or 5 servings.
GIVETCH (Balkan Vegetable Casserole)
1/4 cup olive oil or vegetable oil
2 medium onions, halved and thinly sliced
1 sweet red pepper and 1 green pepper, cut into 1/3-inch strips
1 medium eggplant (1 1/4 pounds), peeled, if desired, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
Salt, freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes, chopped, or 1 (28-ounce) and 1 (14-ounce) can whole tomatoes, drained and coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon paprika
4 medium potatoes (1 pound), peeled and cut into 3/4-inch cubes
4 ounces green or yellow beans, ends removed, or okra, stems trimmed, or 2 ounces each beans and okra
2 carrots, sliced 1/8-inch thick
3 tablespoons tomato paste
3/4 cup chicken or vegetable broth or water (more if needed)
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon dried leaf thyme
1 large garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in large heavy skillet. Add onions and peppers and saute over medium heat until onions brown, about 7 minutes. Remove onions and peppers. Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in skillet. Add eggplant and salt and pepper to taste and saute, stirring, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove eggplant. Add tomatoes and paprika to pan and cook until thick, about 10 minutes.
Oil 2 (2-quart) shallow baking dishes and layer vegetables in them, sprinkling each layer lightly with salt and pepper: Divide half of onion mixture between dishes, top with potatoes, then beans and carrots. Then layer with tomatoes, eggplant and top with remaining onion mixture.
Mix tomato paste, 1/2 cup broth, salt and pepper to taste, sugar, thyme, garlic and pepper flakes in small bowl. Pour sauce over vegetables. Pour in remaining 1/4 cup stock. Cover and bake at 350 degrees 30 minutes. Check and add little stock to bottom of pans if they are becoming dry. Cover and bake until all vegetables are tender, 30 minutes longer. (Casserole can be kept, covered, 2 days in refrigerator.) Serve hot or cold, sprinkled with parsley. Makes 8 servings.