Some people have green bean casserole. For me, vegetable comfort food (not a contradiction in terms, I might add) is ratatouille in the summer and cauliflower or potato gratin under cooler, grayer skies.
Ratatouille, as I had it growing up, both in the house and in the south of France, is comforting because it's a stew (even more comforting now that I'm grown because it's a low-calorie stew!). The most comforting ratatouille I ever had was not in France at all, but in Monaco, where little perfect cubes of eggplant, stoplight peppers, and zucchini melted into each other like a deconstructed Rubik's cube collapsing in a sauce of onions and summertime tomatoes. With eggplants and zucchinis at their best in the summer, it's a technicolor wonderland dish, that I generally eat cold, with the fridge still open, on a branch of baguette.
But for our more elevated sensibilities, when elegance, and not comfort, is the order of the day, I created this version influenced by ratatouille as I learned it in cooking school in Paris, and as I ate it at La Petite Maison, one of my favorite restaurants in London.
At the Cordon Bleu, I was taught to make ratatouille in perfect harlequin diamonds called lozenges, each vegetable prepared separately to its own perfection, and then brought together for final assembly. And at La Petite Maison, I sampled a deconstructed ratatouille much like this one, where the summertime vegetables were left tender-crisp, and there was a kick of spice to bring out the summertime sweat.
So here we are: a simple deconstructed ratatouille, each vegetable sautéed separately just to beat the rawness out of it, and paired with fresh chilies, garlic, and mint. Cold or hot, it's a side or a salad that cries "SUMMER!" with all its vegetal might, and takes a page out of an old French cookbook, but covers it with a layer of young, fresh, irreverent graffiti. This is the new ratatouille, as I've learned it, eaten it, and made it.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- 1/2 medium eggplant, sliced into half-moons
- 1 zucchini, sliced into half-moons
- 1 red pepper, sliced into strips
- 1/2 medium red onion, sliced into half-moons
- 1/4 to 1/2 habanero chili (or the chili of your choice, to your taste), seeded and deveined (you could also substitute chili flakes)
- 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a nonstick sauté pan over medium heat until it is hot. Add the eggplant, and sauté, stirring frequently, for 5 to 8 minutes, until soft and tender. Be sure to season each vegetable with salt and pepper as it is cooking. Remove the eggplant with a slotted spoon to a serving bowl.
Drizzle in more olive oil as needed for the pan. Sauté the zucchini in the same way, for 8 to 9 minutes. Remove, and add to the bowl with the eggplant.
Cook the peppers in the same way, for 6 to 8 minutes. Add to the eggplant and zucchini.
Cook the onions for 2 to 3 minutes on low heat. Then add the garlic and chili and cook for another 2 minutes. Add to the bowl of vegetables.
Add the lemon juice and a tiny drizzle of fresh olive oil to the bowl. Add the chiffonade of mint. Quickly toss the ratatouille and serve immediately.