While summer may bring heat and humidity, it also brings wonderful fresh vegetables. The Athens Farmers Market (Saturday mornings at Bishop Park, Wednesday evenings at Creature Comforts) bursts then with beautiful, local, organic seasonal produce.
The sunny southeastern French region of Provence, once a Roman “provincia” and later a “province” under the French monarchy, has some of the country’s most delightful summer vegetables, and cooking. It also, of course, boasts glamorous Riviera beaches, yachts, vanishingly clad sunbathers, and a glitzy film festival.
One Provençal dish, culinary that is, stands out like bright sunshine. Ratatouille [ra-ta-TOO-ee] virtually screams “summer.” Profoundly Mediterranean, ratatouille is as deliciously complex as it is boldly colorful. The dish dates back to at least the 18th century in Nice. Its name, from Old Provençal, means a stirred-up chunky stew.
Fresh vegetables are essential for this summer medley. Eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, onions and garlic seem invariably present, as are capers, olive oil and fresh herbs. The dish is totally vegetarian. Served hot, it is part of a dinner’s main course. At room temperature, it stands out in a summertime buffet.
Eggplant, a key component, harbors bitter juices and requires special treatment. The trick is soaking the cut-up eggplant in salted water before cooking to extract the bitterness. Ratatouille should be simmered only until the various vegetables are just done but still maintain texture. The recipe indicates cooking times and sequence of adding ingredients to the pan, but times will vary depending on the ripeness of the vegetables.
Wines go with Ratatouille quite naturally. The most Provençal summer pairing would be a cold, dry rosé, such as a Côtes de Provence, Côtes du Rhône or Costières de Nîmes. However, a mildly chilled light-bodied red such as a Beaujolais, or a well-chilled white like a Sauvignon Blanc, would also serve well.
Crusty French or Italian bread – baguette or ciabatta would be great – should accompany this dish to help mop up the luscious juices.
Tim Dondero is the Executive Chef at Donderos’ Kitchen, a family-owned and operated restaurant on North Milledge Ave. in Athens. He retired several years ago from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, where he was a medical epidemiologist. An enthusiastic life-long cook, he particularly enjoys preparing classic and international dishes, and has taught and written about food for many years. Many of Tim’s recipes, with brief background notes, can be found on his current blog Tim’s Special Recipes.
Ratatouille (Provençal Vegetable Medley)
- 1 small-medium sized eggplant
- 4 small zucchini
- 1 medium red bell pepper
- 1 medium onion
- 1 large stalk celery
- 2 medium-large tomatoes
- 1 medium-large clove of garlic
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon oregano
- 1/4 teaspoon paprika
- 1/8 teaspoon thyme
- 1-inch sprig fresh rosemary leaves
- Sea salt to taste
- 2 tablespoons capers, drained
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon fresh chopped parsley, plus more for garnish
Wash eggplant and slice off stem. Cut eggplant, including the skin, into 1-inch chunks. Soak 20-30 minutes in well-salted water to remove bitterness.
Cut zucchini crosswise into 1/2-inch slices. Core bell pepper and cut flesh into 1-inch squares. Chop onions coarsely. Cut celery into 1/2-inch lengths on a slight diagonal. Quarter tomatoes, push out seeds with your finger, and cut the flesh into 1/2-inch pieces. Mince garlic.
In a large frying pan or pot, heat olive oil and gently fry onion, stirring frequently, until translucent. Add garlic and celery. Fry gently, with frequent stirring, for 2 minutes. Drain eggplant pieces well and add them plus zucchini to pan. Stir and fry 2-3 minutes, adding a little water to keep from sticking.
Add bell pepper plus black pepper, oregano, paprika, thyme, rosemary, a half teaspoon salt and several tablespoons of water. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are becoming tender (15-20 min). Add tomatoes and a little more salt. When vegetables are firm-tender, stir in capers. Taste and if necessary add a little more salt. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice, sugar and parsley.
Serve hot now or at room temperature later. When serving, top with a little olive oil and chopped parsley.
The recipe serves six generously.