Five years ago, Pixar released Ratatouille to great critical acclaim. In the film, an adorable rat with a dream of becoming a chef befriends a clumsy young cook and infiltrates a fancy restaurant kitchen. In the climactic scene of the film, the rat wins over a fastidious restaurant critic with his elegant variation on ratatouille.
Unfortunately, the adorable rat was doing ratatouille wrong. The version of ratatouille featured in Ratatouille, also known as confit biyaldi, is a visual delight: razor-thin slices of tomato, zucchini, and eggplant arranged artfully over a bell-pepper purée and baked for hours. But ratatouille is not supposed to be a visual delight; it’s supposed to make short work of as many late-summer vegetables as possible simultaneously. Ratatouille was invented by Provençal peasants, and Provençal peasants possessed neither the time nor the inclination to slice vegetables with such precision or to bake them as gently and slowly as possible. What they had the time and inclination for was stew.
But ratatouille isn’t quite as simple as throwing chopped vegetables in a pot with some olive oil and cooking them until they fall apart, either. The key vegetables of ratatouille—eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, bell pepper, onions, and garlic—all cook at different rates. If you try to cook them all together, the eggplant will still be hard when the tomatoes have turned to mush. You can sauté the vegetables individually to make sure each achieves its perfect level of tenderness before you combine them all, but that will take you back into multi-hour territory.
Another approach: Time the addition of each vegetable to the pot according to its hardiness and hope that they’ll all finish cooking together. This is a step in the right direction. The only problem is the zucchini, which can go from unpleasantly crunchy to unpleasantly mushy with no territory in between when you simmer it with other vegetables. The solution is to use the same technique I suggested for zucchini soup: Roast the zucchini to dry it out, gently caramelize it, and make it appropriately tender. While the zucchini’s in the oven, sauté the onion, eggplant, and bell pepper. The zucchini and the eggplant will be ready at about the same time—at which point you combine them with chopped tomatoes and simmer them down to a rich, thick, silky paste.
Precision in measuring is pointless when you’re making ratatouille. You want roughly equal amounts (by weight) of eggplant, zucchini, and tomato, and smaller amounts of bell pepper and onion—but if your garden is producing way more of one than the others, use what nature gives you. Ripe tomatoes, zucchini, and eggplant picked at the height of seasonality usually taste good, but even the ripest eggplant needs a little help in the flavor department. That’s where copious amounts of garlic and olive oil come in, plus a scattering of fresh basil and thyme. Slightly less orthodox is the addition of oil-cured black olives—the wrinkled, faintly bitter kind—which stud the vegetable mélange with little pockets of intense saltiness. (Olives are, of course, one of the many gastronomic specialties of the south of France.)
For additional Frenchiness, put on Vincent Delerm’s eponymous album and serve with hunks of baguette smeared with chèvre and glasses of ice-cold rosé.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Time: About 1 hour
2 medium zucchini or yellow squash (about 1½ pounds), roughly chopped
⅓ cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and black pepper
1 large yellow onion, roughly chopped
1 small head of garlic, separated into cloves, peeled, and roughly chopped|
1 large eggplant (about 1½ pounds), roughly chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 large red or yellow bell pepper, roughly chopped
1½ pounds fresh Roma tomatoes, roughly chopped
½ cup chopped fresh basil
½ cup oil-cured black olives, pitted and roughly chopped
1. Heat the oven to 425°F. Toss the zucchini with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and a little salt and pepper on a 13- by 18-inch baking sheet. Roast, stirring every 15 minutes or so, until fully tender and golden brown, about 30 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, put the remaining ⅓ cup olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the eggplant and thyme, season with salt and pepper, and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the eggplant is partially tender and has reduced considerably in volume, about 10 minutes. Add the bell pepper and continue cooking and stirring for another 10 minutes.
3. Stir in the tomatoes and zucchini, cover the pot, and reduce the heat to medium. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have broken down and the mixture is thick. Stir in the basil and olives, then taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature. (Store leftover ratatouille in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week.)