Whether you have your own vegetable garden or depend on the farmer’s market for seasonal local produce, there comes a moment in high summer when nature’s bounty reaches a crescendo and your garden (or farmer’s market) is offering up a selection of produce so varied and plentiful that something special is called for.
That moment is now. Or very soon depending on your garden. Tomatoes and fresh herbs are coming in strong. Eggplants and peppers are ripening up and the zucchini and squash avalanche is beginning to abate somewhat but there are still a few zucchini to be found that are smaller than watermelons if you look hard enough.
This perfect garden moment can only mean one thing. It’s time for ratatouille, otherwise known as Provencal perfection. Eggplant, summer squash, zucchini, sweet bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, garlic, the entirety of the midsummer garden is represented. In the past even with abundant free garden produce, a lot of cooks didn’t bother with ratatouille because it was such a production. Julia Child is to blame. She taught generations of Americans to cook ratatouille the classic way where each vegetable was sautéd separately from the others and only brought together at the end for as Child called it, “a brief communal simmer.” It was and is a laborious process. The result was delicious but it was hardly suitable for a weeknight dinner.
Then a few years ago, Alice Waters published a recipe where the eggplant was coddled and fussed over somewhat but everything else is just thrown together and cooked in the same pan. Suddenly it was possible to make ratatouille in an hour and that includes 20 minutes to salt and drain the eggplant. That 20 minutes provides plenty of time to prep the other vegetables. If there’s any ratatouille left over, it is quite possibly even more delicious when served cold the next day.
Ratatouille can be a complete summer dinner all by itself and its meatlessness is reminiscent of old fashioned Southern summer dinners where everything was fresh and came from the garden; corn, green beans, new potatoes, cucumbers and onions. If a vegetarian meal is not to your liking, add a grilled chicken breast or some shrimp. But just like Grandma’s country summertime supper, you’re going to need some bread. Perhaps a baguette instead of biscuits though the purpose is the same; to sop up all that delicious juice.
As perfect as ratatouille is right now, it is not the only way to enjoy the summer garden. Mount Airy resident Kayla Ellis finds panzanella salad to be a perfect fit for the current state of her garden. She uses Ina Garten’s panzanella recipe. Panzanella is about the only thing that can rival ratatouille this time of year and boasts of one feature that even ratatouille doesn’t have. Whereas ratatouille needs some good bread to accompany it, panzanella has bread already in it. A whole baguette or boule, in fact. Which is fried in case you were concerned that a salad for dinner might be too healthy to be enjoyable.
Adapted from Alice Waters method
1 large or a few small eggplants, cut into 1/2-inch dice
4 tbsp. olive oil, divided, plus more to taste
2 medium onions, cut into 1/2-inch dice
4 to 6 garlic cloves, chopped
1/2 bunch of basil, tied in a bouquet with kitchen twine + 6 basil leaves, chopped
Pinch of dried chile flakes
2 sweet peppers, cut into 1/2-inch dice
3 medium summer squash or zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch dice
3 ripe medium tomatoes, cut into 1/2-inch dice
Salt to taste
Toss the eggplant cubes with a teaspoon or so of salt. Set the cubes in a colander to drain for about 20 minutes. Now is a good time to prep the other vegetables. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot. Pat the eggplant dry, add to the pan, and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until golden. Add a bit more oil if the eggplant absorbs all the oil and sticks to the bottom of the pan. Remove the eggplant when done and set aside. In the same pot, pour in 2 more tablespoons olive oil. Add onions and cook for about 7 minutes, or until soft and translucent. Add the garlic, basil bouquet, dried chile flakes, and a bit more salt. Cook for 2 or 3 minutes, then stir in peppers. Cook for a few more minutes, then stir in summer squash. Cook for a few more minutes, then stir in tomatoes. Cook for 10 minutes longer, then stir in eggplant and cook for 10 to 15 minutes more, until all the vegetables are soft. Remove the bouquet of basil, pressing on it to extract all its flavors, and adjust the seasoning with salt. Stir in the chopped basil leaves and more extra virgin olive oil, to taste. Serve warm or cold.
Mount Airy resident Kayla Ellis uses this Ina Garten recipe .
3 tbsp. good olive oil
1 small French bread or boule, cut into 1-inch cubes (6 cups)
1 tsp. kosher salt
2 large, ripe tomatoes, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 seedless cucumber, unpeeled, seeded, and sliced 1/2-inch thick
1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 yellow bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes
1/2 red onion, cut in 1/2 and thinly sliced
20 large basil leaves, coarsely chopped
3 tbsp. capers, drained
For the vinaigrette:
1 tsp. finely minced garlic
1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
3 tbsp. Champagne vinegar
1/2 cup good olive oil
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oil in a large saute pan. Add the bread and salt; cook over low to medium heat, tossing frequently, for 10 minutes, or until nicely browned. Add more oil as needed. For the vinaigrette, whisk all the ingredients together. In a large bowl, mix the tomatoes, cucumber, red pepper, yellow pepper, red onion, basil, and capers. Add the bread cubes and toss with the vinaigrette. Season liberally with salt and pepper. Serve, or allow the salad to sit for about half an hour for the flavors to blend.
Caponata is another good way to use summer vegetables. It is more or less an eggplant relish, deliciously sweet and salty but not very photogenic.
1/4 cup olive oil
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 medium eggplant, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 red bell pepper, cored seeded and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 pound diced fresh tomatoes and their juices
3 tbsp. raisins
1/2 tsp. dried oregano leaves
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
4 tsp. sugar
1 tbsp. drained capers
1/2 tsp. salt, plus more to taste
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
fresh basil leaves for garnish
Heat the oil in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the celery and sauté for about 2 minutes. Add the eggplant and sauté for about 2 minutes. Add the onions and sauté for about 3 minutes. Add the red pepper and sauté about 5 minutes. Add the diced tomatoes and their juice, raisins, and oregano. Simmer over a medium-low heat until the flavors blend together and the mixture thickens. This will take about 20 minutes. Stir in the vinegar, sugar, caper, and the salt and pepper. Season with more salt and pepper to taste. Serve with the basil leaves for garnish.
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Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699, on Twitter @BillColvard or by email.