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Ratatouille should be a verb.
When you create a new word, do you have to define it right away, or can you wait to see where it goes? In some cultures, people don't name their children for years--how can you name a thing before you know it well? Is this why so many of us hate our names as children?
To ratatouiller: to combine colors and textures in an appealing way (To quote the JOY's headnote to ratatouille, "Served on a platter that shows off its contrasting colors, this dish looks like a colorful Cubist still life."). To stew (literally and figuratively). To take what you've got and make something fabulous.
Ratatouille is one of those standards that never seems to change much. From all the ratatouille recipes I've tried, there are a few minor variations, but the dish is essentially the same. Perhaps the eggplant is roasted before adding to the pot. Perhaps an additional vegetable is thrown in for interest. Perhaps it is served over polenta or turned into a gratin. But ultimately, it's still ratatouille--zucchini, eggplant, bell pepper, tomato.
This is the time of year for ratatouille...at our latitude anyway. All the essential components are ripe and plentiful. However, ratatouille is, I take it, not one of those dishes you should make a grocery list for. I imagine that some French housewife, her kitchen counter heaped with summer produce, desperately produced this dish in an attempt to quell the overabundant harvest.
In this way, ratatouille is like many of the famous peasant dishes that we know and adore--Hoppin' John, Kentucky Burgoo, Gumbo--in that it uses what's at hand. Another essential feature of these dishes is that there are as many versions of them as there are cooks. If you were to go scouting for gumbo recipes, you would find them as numerous and diverse as the stars in the sky. Some would have a roux, some would not. Some would contain filé powder, and some would only use it as a last-minute seasoning. Some contain okra, and some do not (despite the fact that okra is gumbo's namesake). Why shouldn't the same be said of ratatouille?
I say all this so you will not scoff outright at my variation on the famous dish, which was born both of desire and necessity. We had all the necessary components for the dish--the peppers, eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes--but we also had some extras that needed using. A lonesome ear of corn made its way into the stew pot. There was also a single Italian sausage left over from a recipe test that I couldn't bear to see go to waste.
In the end, this was a memorable ratatouille. The sausage added some much-needed richness, and the corn infused every mouthful with a subtle sweetness. It was a logical dish for me to make. I will provide the recipe, but I urge you to try your own improvisation. I would hate to have you make a grocery list specific to this recipe, when all I was trying to do was use some spare parts. Happy ratatouillering!
Preheat the oven to 400˚F. Cut into 1 1/2 inch cubes:
One medium eggplant (about 3/4 to 1 pound)
On a baking sheet, toss the cubed eggplant with:
2 tablespoons olive oil
A couple good pinches of salt and pepper
Roast until just starting to shrivel, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat a Dutch oven over medium heat. Crumble into the Dutch oven:
1 hot Italian sausage, casing removed
Cook, stirring often, until the meat is no longer pink. Add:
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
Sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add:
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add:
1 large red bell pepper, cut into 1-inch cubes
Sauté for 5 minutes. Throw in the pre-roasted eggplant and:
1 large zucchini, cut into large-ish chunks
At this point, throw in a splash of water or stock and cover. You want to steam the vegetables until they begin to release their own juices. This should take 5 minutes or so. Add:
Kernels from one ear of corn
2 ripe tomatoes, chopped
Continue to cook the ratatouille until the zucchini is soft but not falling apart. The tomatoes should begin to form a nice sauce. When all the vegetables are done to your liking, remove from the heat.
Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve over rice or polenta. Garnish with:
Chopped fresh basil