But that is not my story. I ended up with a very young couple who didn't want to have anything to do with me. If they were my real parents, they would have given birth to me when they were 7 years old. They were happy to provide me with room and board (for which they were well paid), but it was quickly becoming clear that my hanging out in the kitchen, trying to help with dishes, and asking all sorts of questions was frustrating to them. What did we do during dinner? We watched TV. Every single night. I vividly remember the surreal experience of watching Simpsons and South Park in French.
My first ratatouille was about the same quality as the rest of my experience of living with my host family. I had to wonder why was this dish of zucchini boiled in tomato sauce so famous. And even back then, I couldn't help trying to fix it in my head. "If only we could brown those zucchini first..." I thought to myself.
As I later discovered, there are as many versions of ratatouille as cooks in Provence, and some of those recipes are really stunning. But they all boil down to two types: put everything in a pot and cook it all together vs. cook each ingredient separately to perfection and only then combine them all. I am definitely the second type of ratatouille cook. As Julia Child said, the best ratatouille is neither quick nor easy, but it's worth the effort.
Don't worry about the exact proportions or about missing one of the ingredients. The only requirements (at least to me) are onions, eggplants (or zucchini or summer squash), and tomatoes. Ideally, I like to add all sorts of summer squash, sweet peppers, garlic, rosemary, sage, thyme, and oregano, but I'll take what I can get at the market.
You can cut your vegetables into all sorts of shapes as long as they are even so that they cook the same amount of time. Sometimes I slice the veggies (like in the pictures below) and sometimes I dice (cut them into cubes). Whichever way you choose, aim for 1/2 inch thickness. Since zucchini and eggplants cook the best when salted first (to remove extra liquid), it is most practical to slice them lengthwise, salt, dry, and then dice if you want smaller pieces of vegetables.
The only reason to use fresh tomatoes in this dish is if they are fabulous. It is a lot more work, since you'll have to blanch them, peel them and seed them, so don't waste your energy if you are working with styrofoam. Just use canned. I really like Muir Glen and Hunt's brands.
2 medium eggplants (Round Sicilian eggplant is my favorite type to use)
2 medium summer squash (such as zucchini, yellow squash, cousa, etc)
2 large tomatoes (or about 14 oz good diced canned tomatoes)
1 large yellow onion, 1/2 inch dice
1 red, orange, or yellow pepper, 1/2 inch dice
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 Tbsp minced fresh sturdy herbs (such as rosemary, sage, savory, thyme, oregano)
1/2 cup olive oil (or as needed)
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Chopped fresh basil or parsley for serving (optional)
Peel the eggplants and cut them into 1/2 inch thick slices that are roughly 1.5 inches wide and 1.5 inches long. Cut the squash into 1/2 inch thick semi-circles. Lay the eggplants and squash out on paper towels in a single layer. Sprinkle generously with kosher or sea salt, toss to coat both sides and spread out in a single layer. Let sit for 30 minutes.
If using fresh tomatoes, submerge them into boiling water for exactly 10 seconds. Using a paring knife, make a cross on the bottom of each tomato and peel. The skin will come right off, so use a paring knife or your hands, not a peeler.
Cut each tomato through the equator and dig out as many seeds as you can.
Core the tomatoes and cut into 1 inch pieces. Chop onions, peppers, garlic, and herbs.
Press a layer of paper towels onto eggplants and squash to dry them.
Browning eggplants and squash
Set a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Any skillet is fine as long as it cooks evenly. To speed things up, I sometimes use 2 skillets. Add 2 Tbsp olive oil. When hot, add eggplants and squash in a single layer (whatever fits). Brown on one side, flip, and brown on the other side. Remove to a plate lined with a paper towel to absorb oil. Repeat with the rest of eggplants and squash adding oil as necessary to keep them browning nicely. Don't be surprised that it takes a lot of oil. Feel free to stack veggies and paper towels on the same plate. They don't need to be in one layer after they are browned.
Assembling the stew
You can use any heavy pot or deep skillet as long as it cooks evenly and is not seasoned cast-iron (you can't put acidic ingredients, like tomatoes, into it). Enamel covered cast-iron is a wonderful choice and so is stainless steel with aluminum or copper core.
Set the pot over medium-low heat. Add 2 Tbsp olive oil, onions, peppers, and a generous pinch of salt. Cook stirring occasionally until onions are translucent and tender, 12-15 minutes. Add garlic and herbs and cook stirring until fragrant, about 1 minute.
Add tomatoes, turn up the heat and bring to a simmer. Turn the heat back down and simmer gently until tomato juices thicken, 10-15 minutes.
Stir in eggplants and squash and bring back to a simmer. Simmer gently for 15 minutes. Take off heat and let sit for at least an hour before serving. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and balsamic vinegar.
Ratatouille tastes even better the next day, either reheated or cold. I personally like it cold the best, topped with fresh basil.