Though this French dish became internationally well-known after the release of the 2007 movie, it's actually a very old Provencal specialty. It was probably invented during the 18th century, when Nice was part of the Kingdom of Savoy, which united southern French and northern modern-day Italian cities. As a result, this stew made up of fresh summer vegetables including eggplant (an import from India) and tomatoes and zucchini (both transplants from the New World) was created with both familiar and foreign ingredients.
What's in a Name?
A vegetarian dish, ratatouille was most likely invented by peasants to use up older vegetables that couldn't be eaten plain and couldn't be sold; these vegetables were stewed together and stirred for several hours, which is how touiller, the French word for "to stir," finds its way into the very name of the stew. For the best flavor, use fresh vegetables... though I've been known to toss a sorry-looking zucchini or a couple of mushy tomatoes in with no harm done. Ratatouille, like all good peasant food, is best when made off-the-cuff, with what you have on hand. As a result, each chef's version is a little bit different.
An Alphabetic Tip
Ratatouille is traditionally made with eggplants, zucchini, garlic, onions, tomatoes and red pepper. I was told by a French woman that the proper way to make ratatouille is to add the vegetables in alphabetic order... in French, of course. So brush off your French textbook and a giant Dutch oven:
A Traditional Ratatouille Recipe
2-3 Tablespoons olive oil
5 cloves garlic (ail)
3 small eggplants (aubergines) -- the smaller ones are less bitter
3 large zucchini (courgettes)
2 yellow onions (oignons)
2 red peppers (poivrons)
7 fresh tomatoes (tomates), peeled (for a tutorial on peeling fresh tomatoes, try this video)
salt to taste
1 Tablespoon herbes de Provence
Prep all your vegetables: slice the eggplants into thin half-moons and arrange over paper towels. Salt them and place another paper towel over them.
Slice the zucchini into half-moons. Slice the onions very thinly. Cut the red peppers in half, remove the seeds, and slice them into thin strips no longer than two inches.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Crush the garlic cloves with a large knife and peel them. Add them to the oil whole and heat them until they just begin to brown on both sides (no darker than a slight golden color or they will begin to turn bitter). Remove the garlic from the oil and turn the heat up to medium-high.
Add the slices of eggplant in one layer. Brown on both sides and remove to a plate. Continue until you have browned all the eggplant.
Add an extra tablespoon of olive oil if necessary, then add the zucchini. Cook as you did the eggplant, browning on both sides and then removing to the same dish where you are keeping the eggplant.
Next, add the onions and peppers. Season with a hefty pinch of salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onions begin to brown and caramelize, about 10-15 minutes. Add the other vegetables back to the pot, as well as any liquid that has accumulated on the plate.
Add the tomatoes, squeezing them as you do to release their juices into the stew. Stir to combine everything well. Bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, for at least an hour, until all of the vegetables are tender and the sauce has reduced and thickened. Season with salt to taste. Remove from the heat and stir in the herbes de Provence.
Other Seasonal Ideas...
... or what to do when your garden yields zucchini larger than your head
And once you're up to your eyeballs in zucchini and other summer veggies, make a big pot of ratatouille and eat it warm or cold, as a side or as a filling, vegetarian lunch. If you're looking for other things to do with an abundance of summer veggies, why not try...
- Vegetarian Zucchini Casserole
- Grilled Zucchini Bake with Homemade Ricotta
- Roasted Tomato Zucchini Salad
- Eggplant Parmesan Soup
- Turkish Stuffed Eggplant
- Tomato and Roasted Sweet Pepper Soup