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Three-Pepper Ratatouille Recipe: For a Classic Taste of Provence
Provençal cuisine par excellence
Ratatouille--the dish, not the rodent--is a classic of provençal cuisine. It's a favorite with vegetarians and dieters because there's nothing in it but vegetables, yet it has somehow escaped the stigma of most vegetable dishes. I mean, even my husband likes it!
Not surprisingly, given the ingredients, the dish originated in Nice near the Italian border, but it has come to be associated with all of Provence. It's reputation reaches far beyond, even as far as Hollywood as its animated namesake attests!
It certainly became a favorite of mine when I moved to France, not just because it's incredibly tasty, but because it epitomizes the taste of Provence, an area I always see as the perfect compromise between the life I knew growing up in San Diego and my adult life spent in Paris.
The recipe is simple to start with, and I've worked out a routine for making it that allows me to throw the vegetables into the pot in an order that ensures the densest are cooked enough and the softest don't mush. Then I can just leave it while I do other things, checking on it occasionally. Try it and see if it works for you!
Different schools of ratatouille
All ratatouilles are not created equal. It seems that everyone who makes it has their own method. As with life outside ratatouille, some methods more effective than others. Below is a sample of the diversity:
- Some people salt the eggplant to make it less astringent, wiping off the salt before using
- Some people like to dice the vegetables finely and cook them into an almost homogenous mush.
- Some like to cover the pan so the liquid doesn't cook off, arriving at an almost soup-like consistency.
- Some throw all of the vegetables into the pan at once and cook them all together while others cook in layers.
- Julia Child even recommended roasting some of the vegetables first and I'm sure it's delicious, though I must say in all my years here I've never seen a French person do this.
My School of Ratatouille
I therefore think I owe it to readers to state my philosophy of ratatouille outright:
- I am for cutting vegetables into bite-sized pieces that will cook down somewhat.
- I don't prone cooking them in seperate batches or layering them...
- ...but I do suggest throwing the vegetables into the pan as you cut them, in the order of hardiest to most at risk of mushiness.
- That means starting with eggplant, which I don't salt beforehand (I used to, but frankly I don't notice a difference in this dish).
- I leave the pot uncovered so the juices evaporate and the vegetables have a chance to "caramelize" somewhat.
- I cook over medium-low heat for a fair amount of time for the same reason, but I don't cook them to death. The pieces are still recognizable and have some bite.
Feeding a crowd
I've worked this recipe out to make a smaller big batch than most but it will still feed eight as a side, which is part of what makes it so wonderful! It's also a versatile dish that's just as good served cold on a hot summer day as a side with barbecue or simply with goat cheese for a luncheon as it is served hot with meat and potatoes when evening temperatures start to drop. It's easy to double the recipe and it freezes well, so don't worry about having any leftovers, you'll be glad to have them!
A word on tomatoes
I make ratatouille all year long, but especially when I'm on vacation in Provence, where tomatoes that have ripened on the vine are more readily available and especially, much tastier than the insipid hydroponic imposters from Holland that we tend to get in Paris.
That said, when a longing for the sunshine of the South of France overtakes me, I'll make do with whatever tomatoes I can get my hands on.
Try to use Roman tomatoes if you can. They're very fleshy and even when ripe hold up well under long cooking conditions and assault from the firmer vegetables you'll be constantly mixing them up with!
If you're really into tomato varieties, you might also enjoy a simple heirloom tomato salad.
Hold the salt
Cooked vegetables are pretty salty on their own. I don't add salt until the dish is done, and even then I usually leave it up to my guests to salt ratatouille.
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- 1 eggplant
- 4 onions
- 1 red bell pepper
- 1 yellow bell pepper
- 1 green bell pepper
- 2 medium zucchini
- 8 roman tomatoes
- 2 large cloves garlic, or more to taste
- 1 teaspoon herbes de provence
- A few tablespoons olive oil
- A pot that will hold it all!
- Chop eggplant (see sidebar) and onions into bite-sized chunks and start to fry in olive oil over medium low heat. Careful not to brown at each of these steps...
- Chop bell peppers into bite-sized pieces and stir into the pan with the eggplant and onions.
- Chop zucchini into bite-sized pieces and stir into the pan with previous vegetables.
- Chop garlic finely and stir into rest.
- Chop tomatoes into bite-sized pieces and stir in last along with the herbs.
- Cook over medium low heat about 1 1/2 hours and up to three, according to taste.