Too Much of a Good Thing? Make Ratatouille

Ratatouille is the quintessential fall harvest vegetable dish--eggplant, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, zucchini, garlic and herbs, all simmered in olive oil and in their own juices.

While not terribly time-consuming, it's not a dish to rush through. Make ratatouille when you can relax and enjoy the whole process . . . a fall weekend, perhaps.

Cooking methods and mix of vegetables varies from cook to cook. Depending on preference, vegetables can be either cooked together or cooked separately and later combined and cooked--either briefly or for a prolonged period.

For the following ratatouille recipe, I've borrowed a little bit from each of these options, achieving a result that suits my taste: a colorful, flavorful mix--with chunky but tender vegetables--that uses less olive oil than is called for in most recipes.

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The secret to this ratatouille is slow-cooking the onions, something I learned from Richard Olney and Lulu Peyraud in the wonderful cookbook, "Lulu's Provencal Table," (HarperCollins: 1994). The onions caramelize and sweeten the whole mixture. The only other vegetable that I cook separately is the eggplant, both to develop its flavor and to be able to add it toward the end of cooking so that it doesn't end up as mush. This proportion of vegetables can be varied according to taste. Make this a day or two ahead; like any stew-like mixture, the flavor improves as it stands.

RATATOUILLE

1/4 cup olive oil

1 1/2 pounds red onions, halved, thinly sliced

7 small zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch wide by 1 1/2-inch pieces

1 sweet red pepper, cut into 1-inch squares

1 sweet yellow pepper, cut into 1-inch squares

1 green pepper, cut into 1-inch squares

3 tablespoons thinly sliced garlic

1 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 pounds tomatoes, seeded, cut into 1-inch chunks

3 bay leaves

1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 medium eggplants, unpeeled, cut into 1-inch-square dice

1 to 2 tablespoons tomato paste, optional

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in wide, heavy pot. When very hot, add onions. Cook over medium heat, covered, about 10 minutes. Stir occasionally. After 10 minutes, reduce heat to medium-high and cook, uncovered, stirring often until onions turn light-brown, about 8 to 10 more minutes.

Add zucchini, peppers, garlic and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook 5 minutes, stirring often. Add tomatoes, bay leaves, thyme and pepper. Simmer, covered, until just about tender, about 20 to 30 minutes, stirring often to prevent burning. Check often to avoid overcooking (unless you want a very cooked-down, soft mixture).

Meanwhile heat 1 tablespoon oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet. When hot, add 1/2 of eggplant, sprinkled with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Brown quickly over medium-high heat, about 2 to 3 minutes, shaking pan to brown eggplant evenly. Set aside. Repeat with remaining eggplant.

When vegetables are almost as tender as desired, add eggplant. Stir well. Cook, covered, until eggplant is tender, about 10 to 12 minutes. Vegetables will continue to cook after they're removed from stove. Cool. Adjust seasonings to taste. Refrigerate 1 to 2 days before serving. Stir and adjust seasonings to taste again, adding tomato paste if necessary. Remove bay leaves. Gently reheat, if serving hot. Makes 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

137 calories; 305 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 7 grams fat; 18 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 1.87 grams fiber.

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Pecorino Romano cheese is made from Sheep's milk; it's dry and appealingly sharp in flavor for this pizza. Parmesan can be used instead , but it will be more mild and less pungent.

RATATOUILLE PIZZA BAGELS

1 1/2 tablespoons butter, softened

1/2 teaspoon finely minced fresh garlic

4 fresh plain bagels, split

2 2/3 cups Ratatouille, roughly chopped and well seasoned to taste

1/4 pound shredded soft melting mild cheese, such as Muenster, Monterey Jack or mozzarella

1/4 cup grated Pecorino Roman cheese

Freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons finely julienned fresh basil leaves

In bowl combine butter and garlic. Spread butter mixture thinly on cut surface of bagels, dividing evenly. Place bagels on baking sheet. Spread 1/3 cup ratatouille on each bagel. Spread smooth. Top each with 2 tablespoons shredded cheese. Sprinkle 1/2 tablespoon Pecorino Romano cheese over each.

Bake in lower third of oven at 375 degrees until lightly browned, about 25 to 30 minutes. Garnish with julienned basil leaves. Let stand 5 minutes before serving hot. Makes 8 bagel-pizzas.

Each bagel-pizza contains about:

134 calories; 504 mg sodium; 21 mg cholesterol; 9 grams fat; 29 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams protein; 1.56 grams fiber.

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Thin but substantial, these pancakes are delicious for brunch when topped with poached eggs, and/or for lunch or supper when reheated with a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese and served with a few spoonfuls of your favorite tomato pasta sauce. They also work well as an accompaniment to roast meats. They benefit from reheating; somehow they become crisper without drying out.

RATATOUILLE PANCAKES

2/3 cup flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 large eggs

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes

2 cups Ratatouille, drained

1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

Grated Parmesan or shredded Muenster cheese, optional

Combine flour, baking powder, eggs, salt, oregano and red pepper in food processor with metal blade. Pulse processor until ingredients are mixed. Add ratatouille. Again, pulse processor until vegetables are finely chopped in batter but still with some texture. Do not puree.

Heat 1 teaspoon each of butter and olive oil in large nonstick griddle. When hot and beginning to sizzle, drop batter on griddle, 2 tablespoons at time. Use back of spoon to smooth pancakes to 3-inch diameter. Cook over medium heat until brown and well set, about 5 minutes. Use spatula to turn. Continue cooking until well browned, about 4 minutes more. Pancakes can be made day ahead and refrigerated, or frozen up to 2 months, wrapped airtight. Let cool completely. Arrange on wax paper-lined baking sheet and cover with foil.

To reheat, arrange single layer on lightly greased baking sheet. Sprinkle lightly with cheese. Bake at 375 degrees until warmed through, about 7 minutes, or slightly longer if frozen. Serve hot or very warm. Makes 16 pancakes, or 4 main-course servings.

Each serving contains about:

251 calories; 568 mg sodium; 118 mg cholesterol; 15 grams fat; 23 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 0.9 gram fiber.

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