Ratatouille: Give summer vegetables the star treatment

By Evan Kleiman

Late summer vegetables sing in ratatouille. Photo by Evan Kleiman

For most of us who browse produce in a supermarket, summer may not feel that different from any other time of the year. But if you have a garden or shop at farmers markets, the difference is staggering. Most notably are the piles of summer squash of every shape and color, glistening eggplants, abundant varieties of sweet and spicy peppers, fat fresh onions and garlic, and, of course tomatoes, which are the stars of the season. 

Ratatouille is the one dish that shows off all this summer abundance in perfect balance. It’s not a surprise that its provenance lies in the Mediterranean climate of Southern France.

Ever since the Disney movie “Ratatouille” was released, the version featured in the last scene, of ingredients carefully laid one against another in concentric circles, is the dish most people think about when they hear this dish. In fact, it’s not a ratatouille at all, but a vegetable tian or casserole. 

Zucchini, eggplant, sweet peppers, tomato, onion and basil are the foundation of ratatouille. Photo by Evan Kleiman

The traditional ratatouille is a melange of summer vegetables stewed together. There are various techniques. My mother used to put everything together in one pot and literally stew the vegetables. But I prefer a version in which each vegetable is sauteed in olive oil, then married together with an onion-inflected tomato sauce. This method allows you to cook each ingredient to its own state of doneness without turning an adjacent one to mush (I see you zucchini) or the worst, having the eggplant show up chewy or unyielding. 

Making ratatouille requires you to embrace the process of vegetable prep during some of the hottest days of the year. I use the time to lavish love on vegetables that are going to nourish me in a “moreish” way as Yotam Ottolenghi would say. Some recipes call for neatly cutting each ingredient into smallish dice. That makes the dish too close to caponata for me, so I prefer mine made of a mix of chunkier two inch pieces of zucchini and eggplant. I like to slice my onions and peppers. I particularly like the mouthfeel and look of red peppers that are thinly sliced vertically. It also allows me to cook the peppers and onions together since they’ll take about the same amount of time.

Each ratatouille has its own character defined by the vegetables used, how they’re cut and cooked. Photo by Evan Kleiman

The beauty of ratatouille is that inspired as it is by summer produce, at its peak it lends itself to your own tweaks. Do you want to roast and peel the peppers? Go ahead. Add new potatoes? Why not? The one aspect I would exhort you to try is to eat the mixture at room temperature or even cold from the fridge. While you might find yourself making ratatouille on a very hot day, you don’t have to eat it hot. I prefer it when it’s cooled down to room temperature eaten with slabs of good bread and maybe some cheese on the side. Although full disclosure, I’ve eaten it tossed into pasta.