RATATOUILLE AND FENNEL
I love the idea of ratatouille. Romantic darling of restaurants in summertime, especially those with outdoor patios or sidewalk tables. Easy way to use very ripe, seasonal veggies.
What I don’t like – aside from the fact that so many kids think that Ratatouille is a cartoon rodent – is zucchini. I hate zucchini. Except when seeded, cut into strips, treated to standard breading procedure – seasoned flour, egg wash, flavored bread crumbs – and pan-fried. But normally, I hate the character of zucchini, its texture, seeds, and bland flavor. I know zucchini is an intrinsic part of the recipe. But is it necessary?
I’ve spent a few weeks playing with the basic recipe, looking for a solution, an substitution. And I did. Fennel, that bulbous celery look-alike that tastes like mild licorice. It adds texture, flavor, sweetness. And lacks seeds. It fits in perfectly with the other classic ingredients – eggplant, sweet red peppers, tomatoes.
So here’s my new and improved version with a few of my own tricks:
1. Don’t be scared off at the amount of olive oil. I have already pared it down from an old recipe and this is the amount that works.
2. I use small, narrow eggplants – fewer seeds. Seeds are bitter. I peel, but it’s not necessary.
3. Ratatouille is often seasoned with expensive saffron. I use about 1/8 teaspoon of the ground saffron which dissolves right into the sauce more easily than threads. Also less expensive than the threads. Without access to saffron, I substitute an equal amount of Goya brand Sazon Con Azafran, a seasoning mix containing saffron. It’s packaged in small yellow and orange boxes and found the international section of the supermarket. Read the package carefully as the company makes many flavor mixes.
4. I make ratatouille a day ahead and refrigerate overnight. Then bring it nearly up to room temperature. More refreshing flavor, and flavors have a chance to blend.
Makes enough for 6 to 8 servings
1/3 cup olive oil
5 medium red onions, thickly sliced
1 large bulb fennel, trimmed and bulb thinly sliced
2 small eggplants, cut into 2-inch chunks
2 yellow and 1 red bell pepper, seeded and sliced
8 medium plum or roma tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1/8 teaspoon saffron or Sazon seasoning (see above)
5 sprigs fresh tarragon or thyme
salt, pepper, to taste
- Warm olive oil in a very large skillet over medium heat. Add onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Add fennel. Cook, stirring, for 10 minutes longer. The onions will darken in color and sweeten as they cook. Both onions and fennel should be wilted.
- Add eggplant to the skillet, stirring to coat with the oil. They will sop it up. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring.
- Add peppers. Cook, another 10 minutes, noticing that peppers releases liquid to begin forming a sauce. Add tomatoes and thyme. The tomatoes will also release juices.
- Cover the skillet. Turn the heat down a smidge; cook 10 minutes longer until all vegetables are softened. Remove cover and allow the mixture to cool naturally. Take out the thyme sprigs. Refrigerate 2 to 24 hours for best flavor. Bring to room temperature before serving.