I am making a barbecued chicken with French flavors and I wanted a vegetable side dish. Ratatouille came to mind, but a quick scan of common recipes turned up some problems for my family. Almost all of the recipes called for alliums—garlic, onions and leeks, etc.—which daughter Miriam is “off.” Most of the recipes for ratatouille also called for eggplant, which my entire family is unable to digest.
While I am sure that the French have been making vegetable stews for ages, ratatouille is a relatively recent creation—first mentioned in 1877. While many recipes are similar, there is no set ingredients list or technique for making the dish—the greatest influence on the dish has been the Disney movie, introducing the layered vegetable technique. Prior to the movie the debate on this wish was whether you cooked the chunked vegetables separately, before adding them to the pot.
Since there were no set rules, I was thus freed to use the ingredients my family could eat and still be able to call it a “ratatouille.” In selecting your zucchini and yellow squash you want ones with similar cross-sections. You will be slicing them thinly and then shingling them—alternately laying one on top of another with a slight off set. While most of your vegetable slices are not going to be of uniform width, you want to match up slices of similar sizes—especially for the top layer that will be exposed to your diners.
Karl’s Ratatouille without Alliums or Eggplant
3 beefsteak tomatoes
2 red bell peppers
4 Tbs. olive oil, separate uses
2 Tbs. tomato paste
2 Tbs. dry sherry
1½ Tbs. + 1 tsp. Herbes de Provence, separate uses
2 large zucchini
2 large yellow squash
½ tsp. black pepper
½ tsp. Kosher salt
1. Cut the tomatoes in half at the equator and scrape the seeds into a sieve set over a bowl.
Tip: Much of the flavor in tomatoes is in the gelatinous “jelly” around the seeds. Press the jelly through the sieve and discard the seeds.
Note: Reserve the juices.
2. Slice the peppers in half top to bottom and remove the stem and seeds.
3. Place the tomatoes and peppers on a lipped baking sheet.
4. Broil the vegetables two inches from the heating element for 10 minutes, until the skins are black and blistered.
Tip: A sheet of aluminum foil makes it easier to clean the pan.
5. Remove and discard the skins.
6. Mince the vegetables finely and place them in the bowl with the tomato juices.
7. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a medium pot and add the tomato paste.
Tip: You will have lost some color and flavor when you discarded the tomato skins. The tomato paste brings some of this flavor back.
Note: If you had left the tomato skins in the sauce, you would end up with unattractive raged bits of skin throughout your dish.
8. Stir the tomatoes, sherry, and 1½ tablespoons of the herbs into the pot.
9. Simmer the sauce until it becomes fairly dry, about ten minutes.
Tip: Stir and scrape the bottom of the pot frequently to prevent scorching.
Note: The raw vegetables that you will be adding later will release a fair amount of moisture. When this dish is done you want it to be fairly dry, not soupy.
10. Remove the sauce from the heat and let it cool.
Tip: You may leave the sauce “chunky,” but I preferred to use a hand blender to make it a bit smoother.
11. Slice the zucchini and squash into thin round rings.
Tip: Do not peel either vegetable, the contrasting colors is an important element of this dish’s presentation.
12. Shingle the zucchini and squash into groups.
Tip: I found it useful to make strips of 10-12 rings in a set, so that I when I started laying them in the casserole I had all of the vegetables ready to go.
Note: When I was ready to proceed to the next step, I had about 20 stacks of varying widths laid out on a lipped baking sheet.
13. Put some olive oil into a lidded casserole and grease the bottom and sides.
Tip: If you do not have a lid for your casserole aluminum foil will work.
14. Spread about one third of the tomato sauce in the bottom of the casserole.
15. Arrange your vegetables in a spiral over the bottom of the casserole.
Tip: Start this process with your smallest and ugliest strips. Save the largest and prettiest for the top layer that will be exposed.
Note: Calculate how many layers of vegetables your casserole will hold and adjust your sauce accordingly. My casserole held three layers of vegetables. You want your sauce on the bottom of the pot and between layers, but you will not be putting it on the top layer. If your casserole will hole only two layers divide the sauce in half. If it will hold four layers divide your sauce in quarters.
16. Sprinkle some salt and pepper over the vegetables and spread some sauce over them.
Tip: Be very gently spreading the sauce because you do not want to push the rings out of alignment.
17. Continue laying out your vegetables and sauce until you run out of vegetables.
Tip: Make sure that you have enough vegetable slices to completely cover the top layer.
Note: Do not put sauce on the top layer of vegetables.
18.Mix the last teaspoon of Herbes de Provence with the remaining two tablespoons of olive oil and brush it over the vegetables.
19. Cover the casserole and place it on the middle rack in 375º F oven.
Tip: Place an empty baking sheet on the rack under your casserole to catch any drips.
Note: If your casserole does not have a lid use a sheet of aluminum foil to seal it tightly.
20. Bake the ratatouille for two hours.
Tip: This dish can be made up to this point the day before, so that if you are planning a large meal you can refrigerate it overnight and pop it into the oven just before serving.
Note: While two hours seems a very long time, this is a fairly standard cooking time. The desire is for the vegetables to turn out “creamy.” In fact it is often recommended that you make this dish the day before, or at least early in the morning, so that the flavors meld.
21. Remove the lid/foil and switch the oven heating element to broil.
22. Broil the casserole until the top is spotty and browned.
Tip: If you have let the casserole go cold, bake the dish for 20 minutes at 350º F, before broiling.
Note: The tops of the vegetables should be browned and crispy, to contrast with the creaminess of the vegetables underneath.
23. Remove the casserole from the oven and let it cool for ten minutes.
Tip: The ratatouille will be scalding hot right from the oven. You want to serve it warm, not dangerously hot.
24. Serve directly from the casserole.