Yesterday's excursion to the Union Square Greenmarket was glorious for several reasons. Foremost was my meeting with the remarkable Bakerina, a beauteous woman whose culinary acumen (as you undoubtedly know) is matched only by her wondrous writing. After wicked conversation and no less wicked pastry and coffee at City Bakery, we attacked the market. I have a tendency to be overwhelmed by the glories of all those white-robed tents of produce. Since each plum and every ear of corn begs to be taken home, I wisely allowed Bakerina to direct me to her favorite stands, where I bought all the necessary ingredients for ratatouille, as well as a few other irresistable items (corn, cantaloupe, plums, heavy Ronnybrook cream, a nice organic steak). But I digress. I toted it all home and went off with G on a bajillion Saturday errands.
Today, however, I awoke early with ratatouille on my mind. I have made many a ratatouille in my time, with wine, with various spices, with tinned tomatoes and paste, with oil and without, depending on dietary restrictions of the moment. I've made long-stewed ratatouilles and roasted ratatouilles and "quick" ratatouilles. This time I wanted something different. I wanted only fresh produce, with each vegetable and herb tasting of itself while harmonizing to form a whole. I wanted to use the fat bunch of leeks I hadn't been able to resist, even though they're not a classic ratatouille ingredient, and the huge and lovely yellow and red tomatoes that are just at their peak. What I didn't want was to light the oven on such a beastly hot and humid day, so this is a stove-top version. It all came together quite nicely, and upon the final tasting I declared it the best I've ever made -- at least for now. We're looking forward to dinnertime.
Like all ratatouilles, you can eat this hot, warm, at room temperature, plain or gratineed with cheese. It's good with pasta, in a gratin with potatoes, and with almost any meat or fish. I like it best with lamb; it's lovely served in the classical manner with rosy roast leg of lamb -- or not so clasically, with shish kebab or kofte kebab made of lean ground spiced lamb. Any way you serve it or eat it, it reminds you that although summer may be singing its last sweet song, its flavors are still to be enjoyed.
My Latest Ratatouille
4 - 6 tablespoons of a good, flavorful olive oil, divided (currently I'm using Sicilian Barbera)
1 large eggplant ( I used a fat round light purple globe eggplant), peeled and cut in 1" cubes
6 small green and yellow zucchini (approximately 1 1/2 pounds), sliced
3 peppers (1 yellow, 1 red, 1 green) sliced into thin half-strips
salt and pepper to taste
3 fat leeks, halved and chopped
6 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
4 large ripe tomatoes, blanched, skinned and chopped, retaining all the juice they exude
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, stripped from their stems
a handful each of flat-leaf parsley and fresh basil, chopped
Heat 1 or 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large saute pan or skillet until almost smoking. Add the eggplant chunks, and saute, turning occasionally, until they're quite tender and nicely browned, adding a bit of salt and freshly ground black pepper. Remove to a bowl. Add another tablespoon or so of oil to the pan, allow it to heat up again and saute the zucchini slices, again browning the sides and seasoning to taste. When the zucchini is crisp-tender, remove it to the bowl with the eggplant. Repeat with the peppers, and place in the bowl with the other vegetables. Don't overcook any of the vegetables -- you're looking for that point when the outside has caramelized slightly, and they're beginning to soften, but haven't yet turned to mush (except maybe for the eggplant -- I have a horror of undercooked eggplant).
Add the last tablespoon of oil to the skillet, and saute the leeks for a few minutes until tender and lightly browned. Add the garlic, saute for a minute or two, and then add the tomatoes with all their juice. There will be a lot of liquid. Drain any accumulated liquid from the bowl of eggplant, zucchini and peppers, and add that to the saucepan as well. Cook until the juices have thickened and become syrupy, adding the thyme in as it cooks down. Toss the chopped parsley and basil with the bowl of cooled vegetables, and add them to the skillet. Cook everything together for just a few minutes, then turn off the heat, cover the skillet, and leave it alone for half an hour or so -- as long as you need to go about some other business. In a little while, come back to the kitchen, taste the mixture, and adjust the seasoning. You can cook it down more at this point if you like; I prefer each element still somewhat separate. Serve as you wish, and enjoy.