Call me crazy, but I almost never go to the market with a list or plan for dinner that night. I like to let the produce inspire me. So, at the farmer’s market yesterday I couldn’t resist buying a few golden zucchini to go with the green ones at home in the frig. The tomatoes from the Tomato Guy looked really good, so I chose a couple of those as well. The Amish family in the corner stall had vibrant orange peppers and shiny eggplant and that’s when it hit me…ratatouille. Velvety textured vegetables, garlic, herbs and cheese with generous amounts of spicy extra virgin olive oil. Why not? I had everything else I needed to make it back home in my pantry. The kids were coming over for dinner so I could make it earlier in the day and just serve it at room temperature. That night we feasted simply (but well) on grilled herbed pork tenderloin, just picked corn on the cob and because I had extra, a few sliced tomatoes with balsamic, olive oil and fresh basil plucked from the garden. Dessert was the berry crisp posted a few weeks ago using plump, local blackberries. We drank a vinho verde from Portugal which was light, fruity and just what the wine doctor ordered. I hope it wasn’t our last dinner of the season on the patio, but if it was, at least it was a tasty bon voyage to summer.
Kitchen Counter Point: I’ve been making a version of this dish over the last 30 years, but just recently I’ve discovered the secret to a truly unctuous dish…Japanese breadcrumbs. Otherwise known as panko, these crunchy, flaky crumbs absorb and then blend lightly in with the texture of the vegetables. In this dish, they soak up some of the soupy liquid in the ratatouille, rendering it more dense and firm and the sprinkling of breadcrumbs over the top of the casserole makes for a pleasant crunch. My local grocery here in Northeast Ohio stocks the panko (though it is much cheaper to buy it at the Asian market) so you may find it in yours as well. Buy lots, because you will use it in more ways than you can imagine.
Serves 8 as a side dish
2 medium eggplants, sliced 1/2-inch thick
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup olive oil, more or less, divided use
1 medium red onion, chopped
Pinch of salt
3 zucchini, sliced
2 orange or yellow bell pepper, chopped
2 large cloves garlic, minced
3 ripe tomatoes, chopped
2 teaspoons herbes de Provence or a mix of marjoram, thyme and rosemary
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup dry bread crumbs
1/2 cup chopped niçoise or kalamata olives
1 cup feta cheese
Toss eggplant slices with salt and let stand 30 minutes. Pat the eggplant dry with paper towels.
Heat a few tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add half the eggplant and fry until lightly browned on both sides, adding more oil as necesssary. Transfer the eggplant to a plate and continue to cook the remaining eggplant in the same manner. Set aside.
Add a few tablespoons of the remaining oil to the skillet over medium-high heat and when hot add the onion and pinch of salt. Sauté until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the zucchini and peppers and cook for 5 to 10 minutes or until they soften. Add the garlic, tomatoes and herbes de Provence and cook until the tomatoes give off their juices, about 5 minutes. If the mixture becomes soupy, cook for 5 minutes more to reduce the liquid. Season the mixture with salt and pepper to taste.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Spread a tablespoon or so of the remaining olive oil over the bottom of a 2-quart casserole, lay down half the eggplant, 1/3 of the breadcrumbs and top with half the zucchini tomato mixture. Sprinkle over the olives and the feta and repeat the layers with eggplant, 1/2 the breadcrumbs, zucchini and the mozzarella. Sprinkle over the remaining breadcrumbs and drizzle with some of the remaining olive oil. Bake the ratatouille in the preheated oven for 45 minutes or until the top is crispy and the vegetables are tender. Serve hot or at room temperature.