Saturday, September 20, 2014

Ratatouille and the Nightshade Family Vegetables

It is hard for me to imaging a life where I could not have nightshade family vegetables. The most commonly known vegetables and/or fruits in the Solanaceae or nightshade family are eggplants, potatoes, capsicum peppers of all types (such as bell peppers, chili peppers), tomatoes of all kinds, tomatillos and ground cherries. Interestingly, one of the "super fruits," goji berries, also called wolfberries, also belong to the Solanaceae


Other fruits less well known are garden huckleberries (not to be confused with regular huckleberries of the Ericaceae family), cape gooseberries (not to be confused with regular gooseberries), pepinos, naranjillas and tamarillos. There are many other nightshade plants that are inedible or would never be thought of as food, including of course the "deadly nightshade" (belladonna) and tobacco. Others are mainly showy flowering plants such as Angel's Trumpet or Jimsonweed. 

So why this interest in Nightshades?

It seems that right now, they are all over the Farmers' Market here. Eggplants are finally in season, and each year I have been making a grilled or broiled version of a ratatouille. Most of the ingredients in ratatouille are nightshades: eggplant, tomatoes, peppers. Onion and zucchini are the two ingredients in ratatouille not of the nightshade family. The French dish called ratatouille (rat-tat-TOO-ee) can be made in various ways. The vegetables can all be cooked separately, then layered in a casserole and baked. The ingredients can be sauteed separately and then mixed all together in a pot to simmer. The dish can be made anywhere from soupy to thick.

Broiled Ratatouille with Potato Pizza for dinner
And then a couple of years back I saw Michael Symon on The Chew making a grilled version. Obviously the grilled version has no real resemblance to the original layered and baked versions. He didn't even use tomatoes. But the concept, slicing the vegetables and grilling them separately, then combining with a splash of balsamic and olive oil with torn fresh basil - that got my attention.

I am not a huge fan of eggplant. Never have really loved it. Still, I try to be open minded and eat it occasionally. I have found ratatouille to be one way I do not mind it (Eggplant Parmesan is another). Mixed in with all the rest of the vegetables, whether in a casserole or in this grilled (or broiled) version, it becomes a part of the scenery, so to speak, and I can tolerate it. Long, long ago, while in Guatemala, I tried ratatouille for the very first time, using a recipe from Gloria Ivens book, Glorious Stew. Long out of print, my 1969 copy is extremely well used. She gives two options for making ratatouille; a wet and a dry version. The "wet" version has more sauce and is made in a lidded skillet on the stove, where the "dry" version uses tomato paste and almost no sauce and is baked in the oven. I made the dry version at least once a year for so many years. It is good with a nice crusty French bread alongside, and for me is enough to make a meal in and of itself. This is the version I had made in the past, though I had never photographed this dish back then:

Gloria Ivens "Dry" Ratatouille

Serves 8 - 10

2 - 3 small eggplants
3 - 4 small zucchini
2 cups chopped onion
2 medium green peppers, sliced
3 cloves garlic, sliced
4 cups (one 2-pound can) Italian plum tomatoes, drained
2 tablespoons tomato paste
4 tablespoons olive oil, more as needed

1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried oregano, or 1 tablespoon fresh
1 teaspoon dried basil, or 2 tablespoons fresh
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
  Wash eggplants, remove ends, cut in 1/2-inch slices. If slices are very unequal in size, cut larger ones in half.  Wash zucchinis, remove ends, cut in ½-inch slices. 

Note: If eggplant and zucchinis are large they will have more moisture; to extract it, place sliced vegetables in a bowl, sprinkle with salt and put a weight on top. Allow to stand 30 - 60 minutes. Drain, wash and dry each piece. Cut eggplant so slices are about equal in size to the zucchini slices.

In a heavy skillet, heat oil and quickly saute eggplant and zucchini slices, a minute on each side, removing them as they are done to a bowl or plate. More oil will be needed; the eggplant soaks it up. In the same skillet, heat more oil. Slowly cook onions, peppers and garlic until tender but not brown. Add drained tomatoes mixed with the tomato paste.

Heat oven to 325 degrees. In bottom of a heavy, lidded 4 - 5 quart casserole, put 1/3 of the tomato mixture. Add a layer of half the eggplant and zucchini. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Put half the remaining tomatoes on top, then the rest of the eggplant and zucchini, and salt and pepper; finish with the remaining tomatoes.

Cover and place in the oven for 45 - 60 minutes, or until vegetables are tender. Check occasionally. If it appears too moist, leave the lid off for a while. May be served hot or cold.

Notes from "Glorious Stew": “This version is especially delicious served cold.  It is a refreshing first course when eaten by itself, or spread on bread, or served with slices of Hungarian or Polish sausage.  Hot, it is a good accompaniment for pork roast or chops, for a simply cooked chicken dish, or veal.  It is excellent for a buffet - as relish, vegetable or salad - hot or cold.”

Grilling or Broiling?

Grilled Ratatouille, served in a stack
So now, coming back to the grilled or broiled version, I have found that often when it comes to grilling all these vegetables, it takes time, it is generally hot outside and standing next to a hot grill is tedious, and sometimes the weather does not cooperate. I have made this on the grill. I have now made this dish 3 separate times under the broiler. The broiler goes more quickly and there is not enough difference in flavors to make grilling imperative. Another thing I have to keep in mind up here where I live; it is so often extremely windy outside and it is very difficult to keep the grill lit under those circumstances! 

So for me, broiling is the way to go. One of the very best things about making ratatouille grilled or broiled is that all the vegetables are cooked separately and then tossed together at the end. Each individual flavor is distinct, and concentrated on its own. The flavors are far fresher, and the addition at the end of some capers and fresh basil just makes this dish all the more splendid. No real "recipe" is needed. Just use the vegetables you want, in the amounts you want. This latest version, made just a few days ago, is possibly the best yet. Not that there is great difference in what I have done, but i believe I broiled the vegetables for a little less time, leaving them with more texture. I also added in 5 mildly hot peppers, like banana peppers, and they gave a most wonderful spice to the dish.

Broiled Ratatouille
My Colorful Broiled Ratatouille

serves about 8

2 - 4 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 medium eggplant, sliced 1/2 inch thick
1 or 2 small zucchini, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 - 2 green or red bell peppers
1 - 3 jalapeno peppers, to taste
1 large onion, in wedges
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
3 - 5 Roma tomatoes, sliced in 1/4 inch slices
3/4 cup fresh basil leaves, torn
2 tablespoons nonpareil capers, drained

If you own large rimmed baking sheets (half-sheet size) already well worn, just spray two of these with cooking spray. If your baking sheets are new, you may want to line them with foil. Having two sheets handy is helpful if one of them becomes too blackened.

Heat the broiler. If your eggplant is large in circumference, cut the slices into quarters. In a large bowl, set the sliced eggplant with the olive oil and balsamic and toss to combine. Remove all the eggplant slices and set them onto one of the baking sheets, reserving the oil and vinegar in the bowl. Sprinkle the eggplant slices with salt. Set the eggplant under the broiler on the highest rack. It will take 5 to 10 minutes or so to brown the eggplant. Turn the slices over and brown the other side. Once browned, remove the eggplant to a large bowl or casserole.

Add the zucchini slices to the bowl with the oil and vinegar and toss to coat. If there is room on the same sheet with the eggplant, you may add some or all of the zucchini slices at the same time, keeping an eye on the vegetables as some may brown earlier. Otherwise, once the eggplant is done, set the zucchini slices on the same sheet, sprinkle with salt and broil. Once browned, remove the zucchini to the bowl with the eggplant. 

Set the whole peppers on the baking sheet and broil them until the skin blackens and blisters. Remove them to a zip-top bag and seal to steam for at least 10 minutes. Once well steamed, peel the skins and remove seeds and membranes. Slice the bell pepper(s) and mince the jalapenos. Add to the bowl with the cooked eggplant and zucchini. 

Set the wedges of onion into the oil and vinegar and toss to coat. Remove them to the baking sheet and sprinkle with salt. Broil for a few minutes, toss them and continue broiling and tossing until well cooked and blackened in a few places. Remove the onions to the bowl with the cooked vegetables. Set the tomato slices in the oil and vinegar very gently. Remove them and set the slices onto the baking sheet and move the rack down at least one level. Broil the tomatoes gently, turn and broil on the other side. Add these to the bowl of cooked vegetables. If there is any remaining oil and vinegar in the first bowl, add this to the cooked vegetables with the capers and basil. Gently toss together the vegetables and taste for salt. Add a splash more of olive oil and balsamic vinegar and serve with crusty bread.

My passion is to teach people how to create a harmony of flavors with their cooking, and help pass along my love and joy of food, both simple and exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things weekly. I would love to hear from you, to help me continue my journey to explore diverse culinary experiences and hopefully to start you on a journey of your own. Join me at A Harmony of Flavors Website and Marketplace, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.