Every August I honor the bounty of the season by making ratatouille, but I never use a recipe. Now there are a gazillion recipes out there. Precisely 462,000 retrieved in less than 60 seconds as per a recent Google search. So it’s not because I can’t find a recipe.
Ratatouille is basically just a selection of summer vegetables slowly braised in olive oil. It’s a simple preparation. Nothing really complex. But that is not why I don’t follow a recipe. The real reason is because that’s how I was taught.
My first taste of ratatouille was at a restaurant kitchen in Aix-en-Province during a summer cooking class. The chef spoke only French with a very strong Provençal accent but my French was good enough to follow. He didn’t measure a thing, just cut up vegetables and herbs, and tossed them into the pot. All the while poured on more olive oil than my American eyes had ever imagined was possible. And his ratatouille was absolutely delicious. The freshest most pristine vegetables, basil probably picked that morning, olive oil, and salt. I have honored his approach ever since.
The ratatouille doesn’t taste exactly the same each time I make it, but it always taste good. So each August when the farmers markets are bursting with eggplants and tomatoes and zucchini and peppers and fresh basil, I go out sourcing.
What I do keep an eye on however is ratios. I want equal weight of the four major vegetables. In other words, 1 pound (500 grams) each of eggplant, zucchini, peppers, and tomato. I also pick up a bunch of basil, an onion, and sometimes some garlic. Then I add salt and olive oil to taste.*
For those of you who want a recipe, my recommendation is to check the New York Times Recipe box (link listed below under RECIPE COLLECTIONS). That recipe site has only 37 variations, any one of which will probably be delicious. These recipes have been tested and usually work. If you need a recipe you will need one that is reliable.
JUST USE LOTS OF OLIVE OIL. Now some of my zealous colleagues are still reluctant to encourage a liberal use of olive oil and current dietary guidelines still limit calories from fat to 35%. So my zealous colleagues will be upset with my recommendation.
However here’s how I see things. Over time as research nutritionists continue to study fats, here is what I think will probably happen. The print will get smaller and smaller on those limitations. One day they will just disappear altogether from both label and guidelines. In the meantime, I go with full disclosure. Using a generous hand with the olive oil will get you somewhere between 65% to 70% calories from fat. So if the number concerns you, ratatouille is not a dish you will be able to enjoy.
But that is how the dish was meant to be.
Ratatouille was born in the lovely warm sunshine in the south of France and grew to maturity along the shores of the Mediterranean when folks ate what was available in season with no knowledge of guidelines or limitations other than those imposed by the growing season. Faced with too many vegetables and waste not being an option, the cook did what needed to be done to make the vegetables palatable and delicious.
BUY GOOD STUFF
Source the freshest most recently harvested selection of eggplant, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, and basil you can find at a nearby farmers market. Make ratatouille is August and September. Use a good olive oil sourced from a reliable provider and harvest dated from the prior year.
COUNT WHAT MATTERS
Don’t skip on the olive oil. And don’t worry about the percentage of calories from fat because since vegetables have practically no calories that percentage will be very high. Unsaturated fatty acids predominate and the combination of salt and oil greatly enhances palatability. Vegetables are an excellent source of potassium especially tomatoes, eggplants, and zucchini, so the sodium:potassium ratio is very favorably balanced on the potassium side.
*For nerds like me, here are the ratios used to calculate nutrition numbers: a generous 1/2 teaspoon Kosher flake salt (1.6 grams) and 2 tablespoons olive oil (30 grams) for each pound (500 grams) vegetables.
NB: If you use table salt or coarse sea salt, cut the volume measure for salt by half.