A carefully made ratatouille is one of the classic dishes of summer, a deeply delicious expression of what can be done with the best vegetables from the seasonal garden. It is bright and acidic, sweet and herbaceous, rich with olive oil and vibrant in color.
But there’s more to ratatouille than just one dish — no matter how great it might be. With a little imagination, a pot of ratatouille can be a door opening onto a whole world of dishes.
Make a big batch of ratatouille and you’ll find there are so many things that can be done with it. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, it really isn’t that much more work to make a lot than a little, and it will cook in about the same amount of time. Plus, it’s fascinating to see how the changes in texture affect the flavor.
The basic ratatouille is chunky and stew-like, and the vegetables retain their integrity and flavor.
Coarsely chop the ratatouille and fold in capers and it makes a terrific pasta sauce. Serve it with bucatini and finish it with grated cheese and toasted bread crumbs. This way the texture is just smooth enough to work as a chunky pasta sauce, and there’s enough body to complement the chewy texture of the noodle.
Pulse it in a food processor to a chunky purée, add mustard, vinegar and a dash of Tabasco, and you’ve got a spread that will light up any summer sandwich. Or simply serve it with pita chips or toasted lavash. As the texture becomes creamier, you’ll notice the flavors become interwoven.
Finally, purée it completely smooth in a blender with cold chicken stock and a little anise-flavored Pernod and you’ve got a velvety base for a refreshing summer soup that needs only a simple garnish to be elegant enough for any dinner party.
From one great dish, so many delicious possibilities.
Can’t decide what you want to do? Stick the leftover ratatouille in the freezer until you make up your mind. Place the stew in the smallest airtight container that you can fit it in and freeze it for up to a month. Just don’t forget to leave a little bit of space between the surface of the ratatouille and the lid, as the water in the ratatouille will expand once frozen.
Ratatouille can also be canned, but this must be done carefully. Because it is a low-acid food, the only safe method to eliminate the risk of botulism is to use a pressure canner rather than the basic water bath. Also, the pressure-canning process results in further cooking and may contribute to a slightly mushy texture.
Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Coat the peppers with a thin film of olive oil (about 2 tablespoons), then place the peppers, flesh side down, on a foil-lined baking sheet. Roast until the skin begins to loosen, then remove from the oven, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer the peppers to a plastic bag, and set aside to steam until they are cool enough to handle. Peel the peppers. (As an alternative to roasting the peppers, you can use a blowtorch to char the skins of the peppers while they are still whole, and then gently scrub the charred skin off under running water to remove the skins.) Dice the peeled peppers into one-half-inch pieces and set aside. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees.
Bring a small pot of water to a rapid boil. Stem the tomatoes and score the skin on the bottom into an X. Plunge one tomato at a time in the boiling water until the skin begins to loosen, about 15 seconds. Immediately transfer the tomato to a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Repeat this process with the remaining tomatoes. Remove the tomatoes from the ice water and peel the tomatoes. Dice the tomatoes into one-half-inch pieces, saving all the juice, then set them aside.
Cut the thyme sprigs, parsley sprigs and bay leaves into approximately 1-inch lengths. Place the herbs in the center of an 8-inch-square piece of cheesecloth. Gather the ends of the cheesecloth around the herbs, and twist them to form the herbs into a sachet. Tie the sachet securely with a piece of butcher’s twine.
Heat a wide, shallow pot or roasting pan over medium heat and add one-half cup oil. Add the onions and the sachet of herbs to the pot along with a good pinch of salt — this will help release the liquid inside the onions and allow them to sweat without coloring. Sweat the onions until they are soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and sweat until it is fragrant and the raw flavor has subsided, about 2 minutes.
Add the tomatoes and peppers to the pot along with another pinch of salt, and bring them to a gentle simmer. The tomatoes will begin to release their liquid. Use a rubber spatula to scrape the sides of the pot clean.
Place the cartouche or paper lid on top of the surface of the tomatoes, taking care to press out the air pockets and transfer the pot to the center rack of the oven. Bake the ratatouille base in the oven, periodically removing the pot from the oven and giving it a stir. Continue to bake until almost all of the liquid has evaporated but the tomatoes are still moist, 1 to 11/2 hours. If needed, remove the cartouche toward the end of baking to help the liquid reduce more quickly.
While the ratatouille base is baking, heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add approximately one-half cup oil and the yellow zucchini (the zucchini should cover the pan in a single layer; if necessary, cook the zucchini in batches). Lightly season the zucchini with salt and pepper, and cook until the zucchini is lightly caramelized and just barely cooked through, 6 to 10 minutes per batch. Transfer the cooked zucchini to a baking sheet, then repeat this process with the green zucchini and then the eggplant, adding more oil each time (you will use approximately one-half cup oil for each of the vegetables).
Once all of the vegetables have been cooked, remove the cartouche from the ratatouille base and fold the zucchinis and eggplant, their juices and oil, into the base. Stir to incorporate all ingredients evenly, then clean the sides of the pot with a rubber spatula, re-cover with the cartouche and return the pot to the oven. Bake until the vegetables are very tender and the ratatouille thickens, 45 minutes to an hour.
Adjust the seasoning with salt, freshly ground pepper and a couple of drops of balsamic vinegar. You can either serve the ratatouille right away or let it sit overnight and let the flavors further meld. Serve the ratatouille as a side dish to seafood, poultry or meat.
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