Ratatouille is a perfect summer dish

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By basing your cooking on our local seasonal harvest, certain dishes require attention at certain times of the year.

A few weeks ago many of us enjoyed the first BLTs of the season. Spaghetti al pesto has graced many local tables this summer and insalata caprese seems to be a topic for endless conversation.

Now it’s time to explore some of the dishes that make up much of the harvest: the ratatouilles, garden minestrones, and similar dishes that many of us can source from our gardens.

Ratatouille shouldn’t be a mix of nearly decomposed vegetables like some versions are. Instead, each vegetable was different and flavorful but also well integrated into the dish. It has been my touchstone ever since.

Ratatouille shouldn’t be a mix of nearly decomposed vegetables like some versions are. Each vegetable should be distinctive and flavorful, but also integrate well into the dish.

Most recipes I see for ratatouille cook all the veggies together in one pan, either in the oven or on the stovetop. While I’ve had pretty good versions made this way, I prefer to cook the veggies individually or in groups, allowing each one to bloom into its full self. If you’re only cooking for a few people, don’t worry about halving this recipe. Once cooked, you can freeze ratatouille for a few months. You can also make a terrine out of it (recipe follows).

Garden Ratatouille

Makes 6 to 8 servings, easily doubled

8 to 10 cloves of garlic, crushed and chopped

10 ounces maitake mushrooms, broken into pieces

2 medium eggplants, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

2 small yellow onions, cleaned, peeled and cut into quarters

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt

Black pepper in a grinder

2 sprigs of fresh thyme

1 sprig of fresh oregano

6 to 8 ripe red beefsteak tomatoes

3 red bell peppers, roasted, peeled, stemmed, seeded and cut into medium julienne

3 zucchini, cut into medium julienne

¼ cup Italian parsley, chopped

1 tablespoon fresh basil, cut into thin strips

Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Mix together half of the chopped garlic, mushrooms, eggplant, and onions and place in a heavy skillet. Drizzle about half the olive oil over the veggies, add ½ cup water, and season with salt and pepper. Add sprigs of thyme and oregano and cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil. Bake for 1 hour or until eggplants are tender when pierced with a bamboo skewer.

While the veggies are roasting, peel the tomatoes by holding each one over a flame and bubbling quickly, allow to cool and use your fingers to remove the skin of the bubbles.

Cut the tomatoes in half through their equator. Hold each half tomato over a bowl and gently squeeze out the juice and jelly. Pour about half the remaining olive oil into an ovenproof pan, add the tomatoes in a single layer, cut side down, and place in the oven. Cook until the tomatoes start to darken and caramelize, about 35 to 40 minutes.

Heat the remaining olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium-low heat, add the remaining minced garlic and sauté for 30 seconds, stirring constantly; Don’t let the garlic brown or burn. Add the roasted peppers and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes until the peppers are quite soft but not mushy. Pour into a large saucepan.

Sauté the zucchini until limp and just beginning to color, about 5 to 6 minutes. Add the zucchini to the peppers.

Remove the vegetables from the oven, remove the aluminum foil and allow to cool slightly. Remove and discard the herb sprigs; Add vegetables to peppers and zucchini. Using a fork, break up the tomatoes into smaller pieces and add them to the other vegetables. Mix very gently, cover and let sit for about an hour to allow the flavors to blend.

Heat the ratatouille over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally to keep it from burning. When warmed through, add the parsley, taste, season with salt and pepper and place in a wide, shallow bowl. Sprinkle with basil. Serve plain or use one of the variations listed below.

Variations:

With capers, lemon and pasta: Cook 12 ounces of medium dried pasta according to package directions. I prefer a small hollow ring, Torchetti or Bucatini broken into 1 inch pieces. When done, drain but do not rinse and add to the bowl with the ratatouille. Toss thoroughly, sprinkle over 2 tablespoons of drained capers, garnish with lemon wedges and serve.

With whole garlic cloves: Peel 18 medium garlic cloves, mix with the mushrooms and eggplant and fry the mixture until the cloves are tender, possibly a little longer than without the garlic. Continue as indicated in the recipe.

With sausage: Just before serving, prick the skin of 6 sausages and place in a skillet over medium-high heat. Cover with water and poach for about 8 minutes, turning several times. The sausages release a lot of fat. Drain the poaching liquid, return the pan to medium-high and cook, turning frequently, until the sausages are evenly browned and cooked through. Place the boiled sausages on a work surface, cover with aluminum foil and leave to rest for 5 minutes. Cut the sausages into diagonal slices and arrange on the ratatouille.

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