For most people, the iconic image of fall’s harvest bounty is an arrangement of dead leaves and planet-sized pumpkins. Mine is a big pot of ratatouille.
You can’t eat dead leaves, and most pumpkins are going to disappoint you as well--you’re better off carving them, placing them carefully on your doorstep and then waiting for the neighborhood’s junior high school boys to come by and smash them on the street.
Hey, when it comes to iconic images, to each his own. I prefer mine to be edible, and ratatouille has never let me down.
My urge to make it is almost Pavlovian, prompted by mounds of eggplants, red bell peppers and squash. Once I’ve made a ratatouille, it always seems to demand another. And so on. I’ve made it at least a half-dozen times in the last couple of weeks. Each time has been slightly different, but each time has been delicious.
There was the first time in mid-September, when the eggplant at a stand at the Sunday Long Beach farmers market was irresistibly taut and shiny black. The same stand had good-looking zucchini, too, firm and still a little furry from the garden. And look over there at those bags of blocky red bell peppers! I served that for a Sunday dinner with some grilled flank steak. The leftovers by themselves made a Wednesday night bearable, served with warmed sourdough rolls to sop up the juices.
A little later, a friend asked for a batch for his birthday dinner. Ratatouille for 40? No problem. One of the dish’s signature virtues is that it expands and contracts to fit the occasion. Just keep in mind the rough proportions--1 part onion, 1 part pepper, 2 parts eggplant and 2 parts zucchini--and the recipe works for four or 40.
I even tried a fancy ratatouille the other day: the Cahuilla Mountain Farm stand at the Saturday Torrance farmers market had some Italian cocozelle squash--a pale, thin zucchini--and Rosa Bianca eggplant--plush and tufted in shape, cream and lavender in color. But though ratatouille is elegant enough in and of itself to serve at any dinner, I’m afraid it doesn’t take so well to sprucing up (you can take it out, but you can’t dress it up). The Rosa Bianca was too delicate and creamy to hold its own with all those other rowdy flavors. At the other extreme, the firm texture and nutty flavor of the cocozelle were too distinctive to harmonize with everything else.
That’s really the operative word--harmony. A great ratatouille is like a chord in music, where each note is perfectly in tune and distinct, but where the sum of the notes is something grander and more nuanced than any of the individual parts.
To get this effect requires a little more effort than simply tossing all the vegetables in the pot and cooking them down. So that each vegetable can keep its own identity, I cook most of them individually and then combine them for a brief simmer at the end to marry the collective flavors.
Start by frying together the onions and red peppers. Take this a little slow--the worst thing you can do is scorch them, and then you’ll have to start all over again. Still, you can hurry the process a bit by covering the pan with a lid so that the vegetables will wilt faster--since there are no green colors to fade, that’s not a concern.
When this is done, scoop the vegetables out of the pot with a slotted spoon and transfer them to a larger pot. Leave behind as much of the oil as you can; it will flavor the rest of the vegetables. Cook the zucchini next and finally the eggplant, which should have been salted and draining while you did everything else.
You don’t need to salt eggplant if it is going to be roasted or grilled, but salting before frying seems to make it softer and creamier. Just as you should begin almost every pasta recipe by putting a big pot of water on to boil, so you should start any recipe that calls for frying eggplant by salting it and setting it aside in a colander to drain. If you’ve got a plate or bowl that will fit inside the colander, put it on top of the slices and set a big can of tomatoes or something similarly weighty on top to press out as much of the eggplant liquid as possible.
Be sure to salt the dish to taste at each step of the preparation--if each vegetable tastes good by itself, they’ll all taste even better together. The eggplant, of course, shouldn’t need any more salt, since it’s been sitting in it for a half-hour or so.
With all of these sweet vegetable flavors, it’s also important to build some complexity by adding a good bass note of ground black pepper. Don’t add so much that you think, “Wow, black pepper!” when you taste it, just enough that you sense it’s there. Similarly, a good shot of vinegar will give much-needed backbone to such a soft, sweet dish. Just be sure to cook the ratatouille enough afterward to get rid of the harsh raw vinegar smell.
But those are only general guidelines. You can fudge the ratios and experiment with using different kinds of herbs. Ratatouille is forgiving; ratatouille is resilient. Would you expect anything less from an icon?