Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Ratatouille Niçoise

I only lived alone for one year of my life.  I lived with roommates in college, and then for one year I lived in a tiny little studio apartment, and then I got married and moved in with my hubby.  I loved that one year.  I loved having the total freedom I had there.  If I wanted to watch TV or practice or listen to music late at night, I wasn't bothering anyone.  That space was one hundred percent mine.  I lived a couple of blocks from a Whole Foods, and once in a while, I took myself on little dates.  I would walk over there and buy a bottle of wine, some cheese, bread, and whatever else looked good, and bring it home to make dinner for myself.  Then I'd take a long, hot bath and read a book.  Far from being lonely, those evenings by myself were soul-nourishing and wonderful.

The kitchen of my tiny studio.

One of my favorite things to make on such nights was ratatouille, which is a traditional Provençal vegetable stew.  My family spent three weeks in Nice when I was six years old, and I assume that's when this recipe made its way into my mom's regular rotation.  The longer I'm away from home, the more I realize how incredibly spoiled my sister and I were by the food my mother consistently put on our dinner table.  Warm and fragrant, with the heady scent of herbs and red wine, a big bowl of ratatouille and a slice of crusty French bread spread thickly with soft goat cheese is comfort food at its finest.

Ratatouille Niçoise

The amounts and ingredients in this recipe are pretty flexible.  Just play around with it until you find something that you love.  And like most soups and stews, this gets better with time - the flavors blend and mellow and make magic together.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 large onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 sweet bell pepper, chopped
2 medium summer squash, halved and sliced into 1/2-inch half-moons
2 medium zucchini, halved and sliced into 1/2-inch half-moons
1 large or 2-3 small eggplants, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 cup dry red wine
1 teaspoon herbes de provence
1 28-oz. can diced fire-roasted tomatoes

Heat the oil over medium heat in a soup pot or dutch oven.  Add the vegetables as you chop them, stirring in the next addition as it comes.  When all the veggies are in the pot, cook them until they are beginning to brown and soften.  Add wine and let cook for a minute or two.  Then add herbs and tomatoes, and stir well.  Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 20-30 minutes, until all the vegetables are soft, but not falling apart.  The eggplant takes the longest to soften - taste a piece, and if the skin is still tough, give it another 10 minutes or so.  Serve as a side dish with roasted chicken, or as a sauce for pasta, or my favorite way: by itself, with a piece of French bread and goat cheese.

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