Vegetable Ratatouille

There are many versions of ratatouille, a classic French dish from Provence that uses summer's bounty of eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, and zucchini. 

Ratatouille is one of my all-time favorite dishes. Its versatility alone makes it a winner. You can serve it hot, cold or at room temperature. It can be the main attraction or a supporting player. Top it with goat cheese, fold it into an omelet or use it as a bruschetta topping. However you serve it, ratatouille delivers fresh summer flavors. But, of course, the best thing about ratatouille is its deliciousness.

There are many different approaches to cooking this dish. According to “Larousse Gastronomique,” the bible of French cooking, each vegetable should be cooked separately, then combined and cooked slowly until they attain a smooth, creamy consistency. For years, I was loyal to a Julia Child recipe that followed this technique. But slaving all afternoon over a hot stove in the middle of August is not exactly my idea of the joy of cooking.

I later discovered Bobby Flay’s grilled method: cooking each ingredient on the grill, then combining them and finishing the dish with olive oil, salt and pepper. This is a tasty and somewhat easier alternative, but it still takes some time to execute. And standing over a hot Weber isn’t any more enjoyable than a hot stove.

On a recent trip to Marseilles, where ratatouille was born, I discovered that the tradition is to cook all the ingredients at the same time, in one pot, and mostly in the oven. This allows a melding of flavors that the other methods don’t really deliver. Think vegetable confit. Leave it to French peasants to devise the easiest and most delicious technique.

No matter what method you use in making your ratatouille, fresh ingredients are essential. Late summer brings together all the key elements: eggplant, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic and fresh basil. At this time of year, the Napa Farmers Market is a perfect one-stop shop for this one-pot meal.

The following recipe (adapted from Saveur magazine) requires minimal slicing, dicing and over-the-stovetop time and is now my go-to ratatouille recipe. Sautéing the dried herbs in olive oil at the beginning is a great tip that intensifies the flavor of the dish.

Ratatouille Provençal Style

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon dried herbes de Provence

2 sprigs of fresh thyme

6 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled

2 large yellow onions, quartered

1 bay leaf

2 medium zucchini (about 1¼ pounds), in 2-inch pieces

1 medium Italian eggplant or 2 Japanese eggplants (about 14 ounces), in 2-inch pieces

1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and quartered

1 yellow red pepper, stemmed, seeded and quartered

10 whole peeled tomatoes (fresh or canned), quartered

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil

1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Heat the oil in a 6-quart Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the herbes de Provence, thyme, garlic, onions, and bay leaf; cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and fragrant, about 10 minutes.

Increase the heat to high. Stir in the zucchini, eggplant, peppers and tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. Uncover the pot, transfer to the oven and bake, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender and slightly browned, about 1½ hours.

Remove the thyme sprigs and bay leaf. Adjust the seasoning with more salt, if needed. Stir in the chopped basil and parsley. Transfer the ratatouille to a serving bowl and serve at whatever temperature you prefer.

Serves 6.

Kids activities at the Napa Farmers Market: Bring your youngsters to the market’s Education Station on Tuesday and Saturdays for Story Time at 9:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. There might be coloring, matching games or other fun activities, too.

On the KVYN Music Stage: On Saturday, Aug. 17, Mikey Bilello will be performing. On Tuesday, Aug. 20, David Neft will be our guest musician.

Harvest of the Month: Through August, enjoy a comparative tasting of melons at the market’s Education Station at 11 a.m.

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Marilyn O’Connell is a full-time advocate for healthy children, local food and great wine. She is on the board of directors of the Napa Farmers Market.

Located in the parking lot of the South Napa Century Center, 195 Gasser Drive, Napa, the farmers market is open Saturdays year-round and on Tuesdays, April through September, from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. For more information, to sign up for the newsletter, visit napafarmersmarket.org.