Ratatouille is one of the all-time great compositions of late summer cooking, but it has a little more in common with Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” than it probably should. Revel in it once and it’s lovely. Experience it over and over and it gets annoying. You almost start wondering what Kanye West would do.
It’s easy to see why this Provencal stew has become such an American standard. At a time of year when farmers markets are borderline heartbreaking, with more gorgeous produce than even the most profligate shopper can haul home and reasonably cook, ratatouille is one savory way to showcase three ingredients at their peak: eggplant, zucchini and peppers. The fact that tomatoes, basil and garlic are essential for seasoning is just gravy.
One ratatouille really makes a summer, though. There’s no reason to keep cooking the vegetables in exactly the same way. It’s the combination that makes the trio brilliant, and keeping them together is the key. And when you think about what makes each ingredient so tantalizing, it’s easy to get inspired.
In ratatouille, all the vegetables are braised to indistinguishable softness. But when you grill or roast them, they keep their shape and take on an irresistibly smoky undertone. Eggplant in particular turns creamy and takes on a whole different character.
Layer them and you get cascading flavor and a gorgeous look, which is why the three so often turn up in restaurants in terrines or napoleons. Using them in a timbale is easier and just as spectacular. A cheesy custard binds the layers of purple, green and red, but the pure summery vegetable flavor comes through.
If you steam or roast eggplant, you get a fabulous foundation for what the Italians call polpettine, little “meatballs.” Traditionally they are made with only eggplant mixed with cheese and bread crumbs, but they are even more satisfying with diced zucchini and pepper mixed in.
When you shallow-fry them, you get crusty golden fritters with soft centers and bursts of red and green. Add a squeeze of fresh lemon and the flavor almost jumps. They could not be further from chunky ratatouille, and you can serve them as hors d’oeuvres or even as a topping for tomato-sauced spaghetti.
Because the trinity is so harmonious, it can go unexpected places, including into Mexican dishes. Eggplant usually gets short shrift in Southwestern food, but it takes just as well to cumin, oregano and cilantro as do the usual zucchini and peppers.
A saute of the three vegetables diced small makes an excellent filling for a burrito or taco and an even better enchilada. An ancho chile sauce and lots of cheese will vanquish any ratatouille memories.
You can also simmer the three vegetables in a curry to serve over rice, either Indian style or Thai-inspired with coconut milk. Or you can roast them like lamb and combine them with couscous, heated up with harissa.
If you stick with ratatouille’s Mediterranean roots, inspiration comes even more naturally. Pasta -- fusilli, penne, rigatoni -- sauced with eggplant, zucchini and peppers is superb, whether simply tossed with a crumbly cheese such as ricotta salata or baked with tomatoes and a good melting cheese such as Fontina.
A gratin of the three vegetables layered with tomatoes and mozzarella on a bed of sauteed onions is the ultimate one-dish meal, hot or cold. And a pan bagnat-style sandwich of the three vegetables grilled and paired with pesto on a good baguette is an ideal movable feast, for a picnic or just in front of the computer.
The Ratatouille Three, sliced and roasted rather than braised, are also equally at home as a topping on focaccia or a pizza, as a filling for a frittata or an omelet, or as the “meat” in a well-dressed salad, with greens or pasta or even rice.
One rule of ratatouille applies with all these variations: Use a good heavy globe eggplant, not a skinny or dainty Asian variety. You want a high proportion of flesh to skin to get the most sublime flavor and texture.
The season is definitely on your side. Eggplants this time of year are local and less bitter, so you don’t have to bother with the usual time-sucking detour through salting and draining. As a bonus, there are so many to choose from, particularly the white kind, which are firmer and more mellow and usually less seed-ridden.
Red peppers now are perfect for roasting, with skins that separate easily from the flesh when you char them on a grill or under the broiler. They also have far more rich flavor and less of that waxy texture that afflicts Holland peppers bred for long-distance shipping, so you can dice them small and use them raw or sauteed.
And of course there’s no shortage of zucchini, in prime condition: long and slender rather than baseball bat-shaped with lots of seeds and water.
Put them all together, especially with cheese, and you have anything but predictability.