Anyone who's ever eaten or made ratatouille has an opinion on what the dish should taste like and how it should be prepared. Let me just say there is no definitive version. There's only the version you like. The version I like? It spoke to me at a Provencal restaurant along the Mediterranean Sea nearly 25 years ago. "Use more olive oil," it said. "Use more red peppers," it said. So I listened. And I made it. But it wasn't the same. So I made it again. And again. And again. After years of trial and error, I finally figured out why I so loved that particular ratatouille in a little French village near the Italian border on that particular night. Yes, I liked the heavy hand the chef had taken with the olive oil, and yes I liked the abundance of red peppers. But it was technique as much as ingredients that made the dish special. The key to this particular recipe is layering. Don't just throw all the vegetables into the pot and expect it to transport you to St. Tropez. Read the instructions and you'll see what I mean.
This makes a great side dish, particularly with sausages or pork as a main course. But it's wonderful as a main course too, in individual casseroles topped with grated parmesan cheese and placed under the broiler for a few minutes. It's the next best thing to being in Les Baux.
Serves six as a side dish or four as a main course.
I prefer more red peppers (a lot more) and zucchini and fewer eggplants than most ratatouille recipes, but you can substitute anything you like.
1 medium size yellow onion, chopped into small pieces
3 medium size zucchini, cut into chunks
1 medium size eggplant, partly peeled (I make "stripes" down the eggplant with a vegetable peeler) and cut into chunks
6 large red peppers, cut into chunks
8 cloves of garlic, minced
6 fresh plum tomatoes, or 1 28-ounce can tomatoes
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp. freshly ground sea or kosher salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 tsp. herbs de provence
Saute the onions in part of the olive oil for about 10 minutes, or until translucent and golden. Remove the sauteed onions to a plate or bowl.
Add more of the olive oil and the zucchini. Saute for five minutes or just until the pieces begin to soften. Remove and place on a separate plate.
Add the peppers and saute for five minutes. Then add the onions and zucchini back into the pot with the peppers. Add the garlic and let it saute a few minutes.
Add the remaining olive oil and eggplant pieces. Saute all the vegetables together another five minutes at medium heat. (The eggplant should be added last since it will disintegrate into unrecognizable pieces if given the same cooking time as the other vegetables.)
If using fresh tomatoes, peel the skin ahead of time by placing in a pot of boiling water for a few minutes, then cut in half, clean out the seeds and dice the flesh. Add the tomatoes to the pot. If using canned tomatoes, do not use the liquid in the can at first. You can add it later if the mixture looks too dry.
Add the salt, pepper and herbs de provence and simmer at medium heat for 20 minutes with the lid off, to help evaporate some of the liquid.