Southern ratatouille

What's gonna happen


I call this Southern ratatouille not because there is some chicken fried twist on it, but because of the regional availability of ingredients and fresh seasonal vegetables. Like many of the best foods – Disney probably taught you this lesson via a cooking rat – ratatouille is a French peasant's stew. Typically credited to the farmers and laborers of Provence centuries before America was even a twinkle in Alexander Hamilton's eye, ratatouille consists of vegetables that were on-hand and easily stored for long periods of time.

The standard base for a ratatouille consists of eggplant, onions and tomatoes, but I like to add anything else I may have on hand. Here's where the Southern comes in: I live in Texas and, with that, comes along a different climate and type of vegetable that will be available, say, in California or New York. So, your ratatouille may be Southwestern or Northern or Canadian. I digress.

We're simply going to chop up some vegetables, traditional and seasonal – I found and used some beautiful mustard green tops and sliced royalty purple snap beans and okra – and stew them slowly for about 45 minutes. It's important to understand the types of vegetables that you're picking up; with my selection, I knew that okra cooks far quicker than eggplant or mustard greens, so I wanted to add that as the last possible component. Don't underestimate the amount of salt that you need for this dish; both the acidity and sweetness of the tomato requires a hefty bit of salt to balance it out. Fresh basil will bring a bit of vivacity to the dish. Let's get started. 

What to know

Okay, so defining my ratatouille by region is a very farmer's market point of view. However, going to a co-oped vegetable piazza isn't something you can do every day, which I totally get. You can find just about everything at your Whole Foods nowadays; as is the case, I have included seasonal vegetable suggestions for you to look for to bump up your ratatouille. As you'll note with the ideas below, your dish can change and evolve very quickly depending on the vegetables you decide to use, which is why I love this take on ratatouille.

Winter: brussels sprouts, collard greens, leeks, sweet potatoes, delicata squash, kale

Spring: asparagus, fava beans, fennel, vidalia onions, spinach

Summer: bell peppers, long beans, corn, french beans, lima beans

Fall: cauliflower, radicchio, swish chard, butternut squash, pumpkin

What you need

3 tbsp olive oil

1 shallot, chopped

1 small eggplant, ends removed and chopped (1/2 inch squares)

1 14.28 oz. can whole plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, tomato meat chopped (1/2 inch squares) and juice reserved

1 large clove garlic, minced

1 zucchini, chopped (1/2 inch squares)

1 yellow squash, chopped (1/2 inch squares)

2 cups seasonal vegetables, chopped (If similar texture to above; 1/2 inch squares; if more delicate, chop into bigger pieces if necessary.)

Salt, to taste

Pepper, to taste

1/2 bunch of basil, chiffonade

How it works

Add olive oil and shallots to a sautoir (a sauté pan with tall sides) over medium heat. Begin to sweat the shallots while roughly chopping the eggplant.

Add the eggplant to the sautoir, ensuring that you don't brown the eggplant. Mince the garlic and add to the pot, also ensuring that it doesn't brown.

Chop tomatoes and place in the pan. Once the excess liquid from the tomatoes cooks off, pour the reserved tomato juice into the pan and bring the liquid up to a slow simmer.

As you chop them, add the squash, zucchini and other seasonal vegetables. Stir occasionally with a wooden spoon, scraping the bottom of the pan to ensure nothing sticks and keeping at a slow simmer over medium heat. 

The ratatouille will stew for about 25 minutes once all of the vegetables have been added, or until the liquid has evaporated and the vegetables are cooked through, but not mushy.

Chop the basil while the ratatouille stews. Keep it wrapped in a damp paper towel once chopped to retain the color.

Before serving, stir 3/4 of the basil into the ratatouille; scatter 1/4 of the basil over the top of the dish. This dish will yield about 4 entree portions or 6 side portions. I like to serve the ratatouille over creamy polenta, alongside roast chicken or fish, or, as leftovers, mixed into fresh linguine with grated parmesan or inside an omelette with pancetta.

Illustrations by Robert F. Alvarez