One of my favorite stalls at the farmers market is run by two young women who always have friendly greetings and interesting offerings. They have bunches of several varieties of basil along with many other herbs. Earlier in the season they had garlic scapes, fava beans, and a wide variety of Asian vegetables. They have bins and bins of tomatoes. But they also have an amazing selection of eggplants: not just the big purple tear drops that my grandmother grew but also white, variegated, Japanese, Italian, long, and green varieties. On my last visit I found eggplants that I had never seen. They were labeled as “Indian”, but their distinctive characteristic was that they were only about the size of a hen’s egg. They looked so cute that I bought them, although I wasn’t sure what I would do with them. You could stuff them with shrimp, Cajun-style, for individual servings. You could make an eggplant tapenade, but that would subvert the whole idea of miniature vegetables. I guess you could steam them and serve them by themselves. Of course, if you think of eggplant you think of ratatouille, so I bought some tomatoes, squash, peppers and onions as well.
I have long thought of ratatouille as a dish that is delicious but labor-intensive. That’s because the first time I ever prepared it years ago I followed Julia Child’s recipe exactly. Each vegetable was cooked separately and slowly to maintain its shape and color before combining with all of the other ingredients and then simmered gently to meld the flavors. In short, Julia’s version is not a dish that you start when you get home from work. The mystique has even been amplified by the wonderful Disney Pixar film, Ratatouille. In the movie, the signature dish prepared by the rat was an elaborate layering of slices of eggplant, squash, tomato and pepper. Beautiful to behold. And if you go to the web these days there are several versions of the recipe that use a similar artful arrangement of vegetables. Again, not something you would whip together before the evening news.
I think of a farm family sitting at their dinner table in Provence. I suspect they enjoy a good ratatouille but I doubt that it is in delicate layers. For that matter, a good shakshuka in Israel or bibimbap (add some beef and rice) in Korea may employ the same or similar ingredients without a lot of fanfare in their preparation. In other words, ratatouille should be easy to make and still be wonderfully delicious. This recipe just tosses the vegetables together, uses mushrooms, and adds a poached egg – definitely not authentic ratatouille, but a good way to use miniature Indian eggplants.
Not Exactly Ratatouille
- 6 small Indian eggplants
- 2 small zucchini
- Kosher salt
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 6 small white onions
- 6 medium mushrooms
- 4 small ripe tomatoes (about 4-5 inches in diameter), halved
- 1 large green bell pepper, seeded and slice into ¼ inch thick rings
- 1 small can (8 ounces) tomato sauce
- ½ cup dry white wine (optional)
- ¼ teaspoon ground thyme to taste
- salt and pepper to taste
- 4 eggs, poached
- Trim the tops of the eggplants and slice them in half lengthwise. Do not peel. Slice zucchini in ¾ inch rounds. Sprinkle the cut vegetables generously with Kosher salt and place in a large sieve over a bowl for 30 minutes to draw out water, Blot dry with paper towels. Over a high flame, grill the vegetables for a few minutes until lightly browned with grill marks (if desired). Remove from the grill and set aside until ready for assembly.
- Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven or lidded oven-proof vessel over medium heat. Add the grilled eggplant and zucchini along with the onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, green pepper, tomato sauce, wine and seasonings.
- Cover the Dutch oven and transfer to the middle of an oven preheated to 300°F. Bake for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the vegetables are fragrant and tender. If there is too much liquid, remove the cover during the last 15 minutes of cooking to reduce. Adjust the seasoning and serve, topped with 2 poached eggs for each serving.