For me, ratatouille is a celebration of our summer garden harvest. I often think of this dish as I’m planning the next year’s garden, adding seeds to my shopping cart in anticipation of planting, tending, and harvesting the fresh ingredients that put this meal on our dinner table. I choose seeds that will be ideally suited for creating this beautiful, delicious dish. Yes, I really do love ratatouille that much.
Ratatouille has humble origins. It began as a rustic, thick vegetable stew. In its early days, eggplant was still exclusive to India and both zucchini and tomato hadn’t found their way into cultivated gardens. Those components would not have found their way into the cooking pot hung over an open fire. Instead, a little of this, a little of that, heat, and time combined to bring together the flavors and textures of what was in season together into a thick stew that could be eaten and enjoyed for many days. No written recipe was needed and the results would have varied slightly every time it was made thanks to the dish being dictated by what was at its most ripe and delicious. It was true peasant food, elevating the individual ingredients into a combination that was delicious and versatile.
What was a rustic stew in 18th century France evolved over time into a more refined dish in the Mediterranean. It is unclear if the dish we know originated in Spain, Italy, or the South of France. The flavors suggest that it could be from any of those individually or it could have been a regional dish, blurring the boundaries and borders of the three countries.
Around 1930, a written recipe for ratatouille first appeared. In this more modern take, eggplant (often called aubergine) and fresh herbs were added. These early written recipes instructed cooks to prepare each of the components separately, cooking them fully before eventually combining them to create a dish full of their individual flavors. The dish was named “ratatouille”, a name derived from the French term “touiller,” which means “to stir up”.
Julia Child referred to ratatouille as “eggplant casserole” in her epic tome, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She details how to slice the zucchini and eggplant into thin strips, cooking them to perfection before layering them with the fresh tomato sauce and herbs into a casserole. She introduces her recipe by writing “Ratatouille perfumes the kitchen with the essence of Provence and is certainly one of the great Mediterranean dishes.”
I never question Julia’s wisdom and was intrigued by the idea of slicing the zucchini and eggplant into ribbons rather than the cubed versions I had been making for years. I knew that the flavor would be unchanged, but I loved the idea of the thin strips of squash adding beautiful color to the serving of ratatouille on our dinner plates. Yet I didn’t love the thought of baking the ratatouille lasagna style, hiding the very colors that I wanted to make the focus of the dish.
During a morning of garden chores, I realized that there was a simple solution: stand the thin slices on end, wrapping them together in a round pan over a bed of the fresh tomato sauce. The beautiful color of the skins isn’t just visible. It’s a gorgeous sight worthy of an oil painting. It was even more stunning than I had hoped for.
This dish is a show stopper. Be prepared to find yourself marveling at just how lovely it looks as it comes together. I’ve made it several times this summer and it still amazes me how gorgeous it is. The bright yellow of the summer squash, deep green of the zucchini, and purple eggplant are such a beautiful combination especially when added to a deep red tomato sauce. It truly is a celebration of the best fresh flavors of summer.
- 1 red bell pepper
- 1 yellow bell pepper
- 1 orange bell pepper
- 2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 large shallot (or small onion) minced
- 1 pound fresh tomatoes, diced
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme, minced
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 zucchini
- 2 yellow summer squash
- 2 eggplant
- 1 Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme, minced
- salt and pepper
- Cut each pepper in half, removing the stem, seeds, and ribs. Place the halves cut side down on a foil lined baking sheet. Roast in a 425 degree oven for 15 – 25 minutes until the skins brown and blister. Remove the peppers from the oven and allow to cool to room temperature. Using a sharp knife, remove the skins from the roasted peppers before dicing into ½” pieces.
- In a large skillet (I use my 9” cast iron skillet), heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallot and sauté for 2-4 minutes until translucent, stirring to prevent scorching. Add the garlic and stir until fragrant for one minute, taking care not to brown. Add the tomatoes, diced peppers, and thyme to the skillet. Stir to combine.
- Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the bay leaf. Season with salt and pepper and continue to cook gently until the ingredients soften and combine. Remove from the heat and taste for seasoning, adding more salt and pepper if necessary.
- Transfer 1 cup of the tomato sauce from the skillet to a small pot. Add ¼ cup bone broth or stock to the pot and warm over low heat as you assemble the ratatouille. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt and pepper if necessary. Add 1 Tablespoon butter and stir to incorporate as it melts. Turn the heat down to the lowest setting and keep warm until serving.
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove the stem and blossom ends from each of the squash. Using a sharp knife or a mandoline, slice each squash lengthwise into thin strips. The strips should be thin enough to allow the slices to be flexed into shape without breaking. I set my mandoline on the 1/8” setting for this recipe. Set the slices aside.
- Spread the remaining tomato sauce to evenly cover the bottom of the skillet or spring form pan. Select a small slice of squash to form into a tight coil and place in the center of the pan, nestling it into the tomato sauce. Alternate the different colors of squash, wrapping thin slices around each other. Overlap the slices slightly and hold them together if necessary. As the coil grows larger, it will be held together by the sides of the pan. Continue to add squash slices until the pan is so full that additional slices cannot be added.
- Use a pastry brush to brush the top of the surface of the squash with olive oil. Season with salt, pepper, and the fresh thyme leaves. Cover the pan with aluminum foil. Transfer the pan to the hot oven and cook for 25 minutes. Remove the foil and continue to cook for another 20-30 minutes until the squash has softened and browned slightly. If you prefer a deeper browning, place the pan under a broiler for 1-2 minutes taking care not to burn the squash.
- Remove the pan from the oven and allow to cool for 5 minutes before cutting into wedges.Place a wedge of ratatouille on the plate and spoon a bit of the sauce over the top.
- You can adjust this recipe to fit what is in season in your garden or at the local farmer’s market, adding more or less of a particular squash or pepper if needed. When time is short, I often make this ratatouille in a more rustic way. You can easily chop the peppers and cube the squash, sautéing the combination of squash before adding the peppers and then tomatoes to the skillet, allowing the tomatoes to become a sauce around the other ingredient squash. Ratatouille is equally delicious served hot or at room temperature. Any leftovers can be used as a base for delicious pasta, rice, or couscous dish the following day.