Autumn in the San Francisco Bay Area is a truly spectacular time of the year! Nostalgic memories take me back to the glorious Indian summer days I savored and treasured during my youth as a farm boy in southern Minnesota. During that brief season I always felt as if I were being warmly kissed by the sun while simultaneously enjoying the fresh, crisp coolness of the air. The skies were richly azure and completely cloudless. On those days I would oftentimes crawl into the hayloft of our barn, swing open the upper door on the south side, curl up on the fragrant bales of hay and straw stacked like building blocks nearly to the rafters and bask lazily in the glorious and intense warmth of the sun as it poured through that open portal, the sound of the rustling leaves of corn drying in the nearby fields adding a melodious and wonderfully haunting note to the moment. Those times were magical and carefree!
What I grew to know as Indian summer during those youthful years is now ours to enjoy here in the Bay Area in these last days of October. Yesterday was another one of those glorious, magical days and I felt wonderfully fresh and alive as we headed to the local Farmers’ Market just four short blocks from our home. What treasures from Mother Earth will we find today? We passed tables and stands copiously laden with freshly hand picked green and red bell peppers. There were mounds of blemish-free vine ripened tomatoes… and what a delight it was to smell them, that intense fragrance always absent from tomatoes purchased in local stores and markets. There were vendors selling deep purple Japanese eggplants as well as varieties I had never before seen, all of them gorgeous in their shapes, sizes and colors! We came across onions… then basil… then firm dark green zucchini. The cooking adventure for the day became obvious… Ratatouille!
Laden with bags of fresh produce we headed excitedly home to prepare this delectable dish. Pots and pans were taken down from the pot rack, knives were sharpened and the chopping processes were soon underway! The mainstay ingredients of Ratatouille are universal: fresh tomatoes, onion, eggplant, basil, Italian parsley, garlic, zucchini, and bell pepper. What, then, makes for a truly sumptuous and exquisite Ratatouille, one that stands far and above one you’ve had in the past? Technique and personality are, without a doubt, the keys to taking this dish from ordinary to extraordinary! So, let’s begin…
5 large vine ripened tomatoes, scored with an X cut on the bottom of each, using a sharp paring knife
Blanch together in a large pot of boiling water for approximately 2 minutes, or until you see the skins beginning to crack and/or curl at the X cuts. Immediately remove them from the pot, using a slotted spoon, and plunge the tomatoes into a prepared ice water bath to stop the cooking process:
While the tomatoes are cooling, prepare the remainder of your ingredients.
8 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 large bunch Italian parsley (approximately 1 cup), chopped
20 – 25 fresh basil leaves, depending on size, torn in half
Set above ingredients aside and continue to prepare:
2 medium Japanese eggplants (1 1/2 – 2 lbs), quartered lengthwise, then cut crosswise into 3/4-inch pieces
1 large white onion, peeled and quartered lengthwise, then thinly sliced lengthwise
3 medium zucchini, quartered lengthwise, then cut crosswise into 3/4-inch pieces
2 large assorted bell peppers (we use 1 red and 1 green), seeded and cut into 3/4-inch dice
Take the cooled tomatoes, cut out the stem and peel them. Squeeze out the seeds, coarsely chop, then set aside.
To a medium saucepan add:
1/4 C extra-virgin olive oil
Heat the oil over moderately high heat. When it begins to shimmer in the pan add the sliced garlic and cook until the garlic slices just begin to take on color (this step not only cooks the garlic but adds that wonderful garlic flavor to the oil). Add the parsley, basil and chopped tomatoes to the pan. Reduce the heat slightly, keeping the mixture simmering to create a thickened sauce:
While the sauce is cooking, in a heavy 12-inch sauteuse or small rondo, over moderately high heat, add:
- 1/4 C extra-virgin olive oil
When the oil is shimmering add the sliced white onions and diced bell pepper:
Saute until the bell pepper has softened and the onion has begun to take on a rich golden color. At this point sparingly season both the sauce and the vegetable mixture with a light sprinking of salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Remove the vegetables from the sauteuse, placing them in a bowl at the side. To the pan add and heat to shimmering:
- 1/4 C extra-virgin olive oil
Add the eggplant and saute until the eggplant is well browned with the skin beginning to take on some charring. This step is essential as it is the charring which adds a delicious smokiness to the completed dish!
Remove the eggplant from the pan and set aside. Once again add to the pan and heat to shimmering:
- 1/4 C extra-virgin olive oil
Add the zucchini to the pan and saute until it is cooked and has begun to brown:
To the sauteed zucchini add the eggplant, the onion and bell pepper mixture as well as the sauce, which will be rich and thickened. Mix well and season with additional salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Simmer for 10 minutes and allow to cool, uncovered. We much prefer a short final simmering time as opposed to a simmer that extends for as much as an hour which, in my opinion, reduces the consistency of this lovely dish to a mushiness that is not appealing either to the eye or the palate. The vegetables are all completely cooked and retain their individual integrity… this is truly delicious!
Serve warm or at room temperature. This is wonderful as a one dish meal, accompanied with a crusty loaf of bead and a crisp white wine. It is also delicious served over pasta and garnished with grated or shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano and a sprinkle of julienned basil. Or, serve it as a delectable side dish… Bon Appetit!
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