Though my tolerance level for certain mundane chores and undesirable housework has nothing short of sky rocketed as I hurtle away from the carefree days of my twenties towards that decade that shall not be named, I can say with one-hundred-percent assuredness that just because I do something unprompted (and without excessive pouting), it does not mean I like it.
When it comes to said duties, I have a definite mental hierarchy of those dreaded bits of labor that seem to irk me more than most.
The least bothersome? Making my bed (a soothing daily ritual). Vacuuming (evil dust bunnies, you will be mine!). Cleaning the bathroom and wiping down countertops (I really like my Mrs. Meyers, and if expensive cleaning spray that smells like geraniums is what it takes – then so be it).
The worst offenders? Laundry – both the folding of ,and the putting away of (does anyone else’s pile multiply like rabbits?!). Puglet pooper scooping (self explanatory). And then – there is doing the dishes.
That one pesky chore that rears it’s ugly head at the worst time of the day: that hour when you are supposed to be winding down on the couch with a glass of wine dissecting the intricacies of Don Draper – not rolling up your sleeves and chipping away at crusted-on polenta.
Alas, the dishes must be dealt with. After a long day and a big meal, I think we all have made the rookie mistake of being just oh-so-tired (and perhaps a wee bit lazy?) and gave the dish pile the ole ‘hell with it wave, before marching off to bed and leaving the mess for the morning. Without fail, that decision is never, ever, the right one. I’ll meander into the kitchen after a nice relaxing sleep, ready to make a pot of coffee and start the new day from scratch, and instead find myself face-to-face with a stinky pile of mucked-up dishes made all that more unbearable from having had eight hours to let everything crust up and harden on for dear life.
Once bitten twice shy in that respect, and now I bravely face the dishes, one excellently helpful husband as my copilot, and power on through. The best defense on a night where even setting the table seems like too much to handle (and, lets face it, those nights seem to poke their heads up quite a bit), is a bit of strategy and preemptive planning. My go-to recipes on those such nights contain exactly zero phrases like “and then in another bowl to the side” or “in a separate pan,” – dead giveaways that you’ll be making yourself a fine old mess. They key is keeping things simple, with lots of flavor; I can handle dirtying a chopping board and a knife (twist my arm), but the rest must be kept to an absolute minimum.
Which brings me to this ratatouille. Ratatouille, that fabulously flavorful French dish of vegetables cooked down into a velvety consistency, has been a favorite of mine for awhile now – particularly since a trip I took to the South of France a few years back, where they serve a little ramekin of it with almost every meal, similar to how they would coleslaw or tiny side salad here in the States. A traditional ratatouille, like most French dishes, is not necessarily difficult, but it takes many different steps, which involve each vegetable being cooked by itself in a pan, and then transferred to its own bowl, and then all transferred back again into another vessel where it is baked off and finished. Considering most versions of ratatouilles contain eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, onions, and one or two types of peppers, that is at least five turns at the stove and multiple dirtied dishes to make something that, in the end, is a totally homogenous dish of all of those things combined.
Using that many pots and pans to make something that eventually will all be mixed together gives me a flashback to my Mother saying “it all ends up in the same place anyway, dearie!” when I would crumple my little nose up at the thought of eating mashed potatoes and carrots – that had touched each other. (Insert a 4 year old’s worst nightmare here.) Furthermore, though I do love ratatouille, I do not love mush; and oftentimes cooking vegetables on the stovetop (without coloring them, at least according to Julia Child) and then baking them so they reduce further, losing their form and taking on unrecognizable shapes, is a good way to accidently find yourself with a big bowl of exactly that.
And so, if I want to have my cake and eat it too, I make this take on a ratatouille that cuts the dishes down to approximately two things (your knife and your cutting board), and also gives you a bold plate of clean flavors that each steadfastly hold their own. I have learned to make best friends with parchment paper when roasting vegetables, as slipping it underneath them before sending them off to the beach makes cleanup as easy as balling it up and tossing the used paper straight out. The pan is left clean, and any other seasonings, oils or marinades added remain in the trash, and not on your pan.
In this loose and admittedly non-traditional version of ratatouille, I chop a zucchini, an eggplant, an onion, and a couple of peppers into an even and large dice, usually about 3/4″ – 1″ in size. I heave them all on two baking sheets – lined with parchment – and then toss them simply in olive oil, a healthy dose of kosher salt and fresh black pepper, and then toss in a handful of minced garlic, for good measure. The vegetables are roasted, at a high heat, so that they do caramelize and brown on the edges (sorry Julia), as I generally think this is how veggies taste the most vibrant. When they are soft, I toss in some halved tomatoes, and let the heat shrivel their edges and purge them of their delicious sweet juices.
This lovely mess is then tossed with skinny strips of basil chiffonade, which wilts and melts fragrantly in the heat of the hot veggies, and gives the whole dish a subtle fresh flavor.
The resulting dish smells intoxicatingly good; the bits of eggplant that have browned and become sweet are like little treasures, the peppers are soft and unctuous, and the zucchini just barely holds its shape, giving each bite a velvety texture. The homey smell of garlic and onions infuses the entire house, and — the best part — you simply peel away the parchment, and your dishes are virtually complete.
This ratatouille gets better as it sits, much like a soup or chili becomes more rounded in its flavors over the course of a few days. Though this is excellent on day one, I always make a big batch, even if it’s just the two of us that evening, knowing that makes an insanely good lunch when scooped over arugula, topped with shards of good parmesan, and given a big squeeze of fresh lemon juice. It is very healthy, and even though it does contain a good bit of olive oil (needed to roast all those veggies), the amount reduces to a very reasonable amount per serving. It is wonderful served hot, warm, at room temperature, or cold, and its versatility truly belies its fancy French name.
Simply Roasted Ratatouille
Serves 4 heartily (or 6 smaller portions) as a side
I like to use red and orange bell peppers, but you can substitute in yellow or green if you like. If you don’t have fresh basil, this is also delicious with fresh thyme.
A word on baking with parchment – I always keep my racks centered when I use parchment, to avoid having any overhang being too close to a heating element, and get too hot (and maybe catch fire – but that has never actually happened to me). Cutting your parchment down so that only a minimal amount hangs over the side (I try to keep mine only 1/2″ above the lip of the pan) will help greatly with this.
1 red pepper
1 orange pepper
1 white onion
1 pint grape (or cherry) tomatoes
5 cloves garlic, minced and divided into 2 piles
4-5 Tbsp olive oil
~1/2 cup loosely packed basil leaves
kosher salt & fresh black pepper
Preheat your oven to 450F, and (optional, but it will make your cleanup a breeze) line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
First, prepare your vegetables: chop the peppers, zucchini, and onion into similarly sized pieces, about 3/4″-1″ each. When all of your vegetables are chopped and the oven is hot, divide the veggies between two parchment lined baking sheets, evenly distributing them amongst the two pans. Add one pile of the garlic to each pan, and then drizzle each pan with 2-2 1/2 Tbsp of olive oil, tossing to coat, so that the vegetables are very lightly coated and the garlic is well distributed (you may not need to use all of the olive oil; conversely, if your veggies look dry, add a bit more oil to each pan). Toss the veggies with your hands to ensue they are all evenly coated, and then spread the veggies out evenly into one layer.
Generously season the two pans with salt and fresh cracked pepper. Bake the vegetables at 450 for 30-40 minutes, tossing to stir occasionally, until the vegetables are soft and browned in spots but not yet very soft and caramelized. Watch the vegetables as they cook, to ensure that they do not burn, and also to keep an eye on the parchment (see note above). While the veggies cook, halve the grape tomatoes.
When the veggies are soft, remove the pans from the oven, and evenly distribute the cherry tomatoes amongst both pans. Give them a good stir to incorporate them with the rest of the cooked vegetables, and return the pans to the oven. Cook for another 8-12 minutes, until the tomatoes are soft and releasing their juices, and their skins are wrinkled.
While the tomatoes cook, chiffonade the basil. To do this, stack the basil leaves one on top of the other (like a deck of cards), aligning them so that they are all in the same position. Roll the leaves like a cigar (roll pointy end to pointy end), and then carefully slice off rounds of the cigar, making very skinny basil strips.
When the vegetables are soft and caramelized and the tomatoes have released their juices, the ratatouille is finished. Taste and adjust salt and pepper levels if necessary (I always end up adding a good bit more salt), and then either serve immediately, later at room temperature, or the next day. The flavor of ratatouille improves with time, and it will keep very well in the fridge for about 5 days, tasting richer every day.
**I love this dish with a poached egg over the top as a complete meal; it is also amazing tossed with al dente pasta, tucked into lasagna, folded into scrambled eggs, rolled into a wrap with goat cheese, or stuffed into par-roasted mushroom caps, topped with slices of fresh mozzarella, and run under the broiler till bubbly and golden brown**