With the seasonal shift comes cooler eves and perhaps shifting gears in the kitchen. Instead of cooling off with granita and gazpacho, I’m setting my sights on the stove, with a pot at the ready for simmering, warming up both the kitchen and my belly. While late-season tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and corn remain plentiful, it is a perfect time for a pot of ratatouille to take off the chill.
Derived from the French word touiller, which means to stir up, ratatouille is a rustic ragout of harvest vegetables that invites kitchen improvisation. Although many Americans associate ratatouille with the Provence region of France, the dish was likely inspired by earlier versions of eggplant-forward stews in the Mediterranean, including pisto and samfaina.
My first attempt at making ratatouille many years ago was soggy, a motley medley of overcooked vegetables that were indistinguishable.
With time, I learned to cook the vegetables separately so that the final result could be bright and vibrant as I had originally hoped for. Then I tinkered with the spices, re-creating the flavor profile from Mediterranean into something more South Asian, adding ginger, chile peppers and curry powder.
I loved the fiery pop but even more gratifying was the discovery that this dish, long believed to be French, is a world traveler willing and able to adapt. No matter which direction you go, the result is a celebration of the late summer harvest.
Makes 6 servings.
- 1 large globe eggplant (about 1 pound total)
- Salt for leaching the eggplant
- 4 tablespoons neutral oil (use 5 if adding zucchini)
- 3/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 medium onion, halved and sliced thinly (about 1 cup)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons very finely minced fresh ginger
- 1 to 2 green chile peppers (depending on heat preference), seeded and minced
- 2 cups red or yellow bell peppers, seeded and cut into julienne strips (from about 2 medium)
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 medium zucchini, cut into half-moons, or 1 cup corn kernels (from 2 ears)
- 2 to 3 cups tomato puree or diced tomatoes (fresh or canned)
- 1 teaspoon Madras curry powder or garam masala
- Chopped fresh basil and/or parsley, for garnish
Preheat the oven to 450 F.
Cut the eggplant into 1/2-inch cubes (You’ll end up with 5 to 6 cups). Sprinkle with salt and let drain on a rack for about 30 minutes. Pat eggplant dry with a towel. Transfer to a bowl and add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, stirring until coated. Place the eggplant in a single layer on a sheet pan.
Roast until the eggplant is golden on the edges and aromatic. You’ll notice that the eggplant will have shrunk substantially, resulting in about 2 cups. Remove from the oven and set aside.
In a large pot or deep skillet, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of the oil, coating the surface. Add the cumin seeds, letting them dance in the oil for about 30 seconds. Add the onion and cook until softened, about 7 minutes.
Stir in the minced ginger and chile peppers, followed by the bell peppers, cooking until softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic, cooking for about 1 minute. Season with 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Add 2 cups of the tomato puree and the curry powder. Stir everything together and bring to a boil. Add the eggplant; if the mixture seems too thick, add the remaining tomato puree. If you like the consistency, save the puree for another dish.
Lower the heat, cover and cook over low until warmed through, 12 to 15 minutes.
If using zucchini, heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large skillet. Add the zucchini and cook over medium-high heat until tender but still bright, about 5 minutes. A little char on the edges is fine.
Add the zucchini or corn kernels to the pot and cook, uncovered, for another 2 minutes.
Taste for salt and add as needed. The mixture should be fragrant and the vegetables tender but still bright. If the mixture seems too thick, add a few tablespoons of water. Serve with optional herb garnishes and eat hot or at room temperature. Can be made in advance and gently reheated.
Serve over egg noodles, quinoa, rice, polenta or with a hunk of crusty bread.
MADRAS-STYLE CURRY POWDER
Of course it is completely optional to make your own curry powder, but it is incomparably better than the store-bought version and takes all of 5 minutes to put together. I highly recommend the DIY spice route!
Makes about 2/3 cup.
- 2 tablespoons coriander seeds
- 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
- 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
- 1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
- 2 teaspoons black peppercorns
- 2 teaspoons ground turmeric
- 2 teaspoons ground ginger
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
Grind the whole spices until well pulverized and transfer to a small bowl. Add the ground spices and stir until evenly distributed. Store in a glass jar away from heat or light.