Before I Forget: Deconstructed Ratatouille

My first efforts here at Good Stuff NW were to simply record things I came across, from a new-to-me charcutiere in Seattle to a road trip south to Redding, California—which we promptly named after the Robert Mitchum classic "Thunder Road"—to a profile of our first Cardigan Corgi, Rosey. All themes that have remained mainstays of what has become my second career.

Northwest seasonal bounty in spades!

You see, GSNW—so much nicer than just "this blog," isn't it?—is also a record of sorts of my journey through food. It's chronicled my sense of betrayal when I found out how my until-then-beloved Tillamook cheese actually sources its milk, to discovering the true meaning of nose-to-tail eating through a pig named Roger. It included finding out that we do indeed have a "food system" here in the Northwest that impacts our health, our communities, the environment and the climate. Wow.

What does that have to do with ratatouille, you might rightly ask? Good question.

Since the beginning, I've also recorded favorite recipes* from the basics like a quick tomato sauce and mustard vinaigrette to what to do with leftovers (a series I call "The 'L' Word") to a yearly Crustacean Celebration of our world-class Dungeness crab. It's been a boon to scroll through this list on those I-have-no-idea-what-to-have-for-dinner nights and find something that will fill the bill of fare.

Which brings me to ratatouille. (Finally!)

I love eggplant, whether in a ginger-rich Chinese sauce or an Italian Parmigiana. But ratatouille, that Southern French simmered melange of vegetables, has never broken my top ten eggplant dishes. Maybe it's the color of the finished dish, which tends to turn to the drab side of the spectrum when finished, or that the vegetables lose their individual flavors in the stew, especially sad when the members are fresh from the farm, vibrant in color and hardy in texture.

But then…

I'd just picked up our CSA share one week and there it was (above, left). Deep purple-to-pale-lavender eggplants, yellow and green summer squash, and tomatoes fresh off the vine. It took no urging to get Dave to fire up the grill, and I pulled a couple of chicken thighs out of the fridge to throw on with those gorgeous vegetables. Tossed with a caper-studded vinaigrette, it was a definite keeper.

Which, because of the post you are reading, I'll now have to refer to the next time I find myself in need of dinner ideas.

Grilled Ratatouille

Eggplants
Italian peppers (red, yellow and orange, or any mix of those)
Summer squash (yellow and green zucchini, patti pan, crookneck, etc.)
Tomatoes

For the vinaigrette:
1/2 c. olive oil
1/4 c. lemon juice
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1-2 Tbsp. capers
Salt and pepper to taste

For the vegetables, mix and match amounts and types as available and adjust amounts for the number of people you're feeding.

Make a fire in the grill (we use a chimney for that purpose). While coals are heating, make the vinaigrette by combining all the ingredients in a medium-sized bowl and whisking them together. Then chop or slice all the vegetables except the tomatoes into larger grill-able pieces. I usually cut larger eggplants into 1" slices and halve the zucchini. Usually the peppers can be grilled whole then seeded before using. DO NOT OIL VEGETABLES UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES prior to grilling. When coals are white-hot, dump them out and spread evenly in one layer. Place vegetables on the grate over the fire and cook until tender, turning as needed and pulling them off the fire onto a platter as they become done.

When all the vegetables are cooked, chop into bite-sized pieces, including the fresh tomatoes. Place on platter and drizzle with vinaigrette. Serve warm or at room temperature.

* Find more recipes for leftovers, or get the whole massive list here and here.

Eggplant Parmesan My Mother Would Love

Nothing's better on a crisp, blustery fall day than something cheesy, melty and creamy. Grilled cheese sandwiches with a steaming bowl of cream of tomato soup. A multi-layered lasagne infused with sauce, mushrooms and meat, its edges crusted with caramelized cheese. An eggplant parmesan, the meltingly tender purple-rimmed slices stacked in their casserole as carefully as a fieldstone wall, held together by roasted tomatoes and parmesan.

The definition of comfort.

My go-to recipe for eggplant parmesan was one from "The Cooking of Italy," part of the Time-Life "Foods of the World" series that my mother had subscribed to when I was a child. It calls for salting the sliced eggplant to draw out moisture, then frying the slices in olive oil. It says to somehow limit the amount of oil, a task I've found impossible since the slices soak up oil like a shaggy dog in the rain. Plus it takes way too long to do, at least for this impatient cook.

That was when I started searching online and found a recipe by Food52's Nancy Jo that called for roasting the slices in the oven, which made much more sense since I could cook all of them at once. (Thanks, Nancy!)

Roasting, not frying? Brilliant!

The Time-Life recipe is extremely simple—other than its time-consuming eggplant prep—only calling for five ingredients: the eggplant, salt, flour, tomato sauce and cheese. I dispensed with the tomato sauce recipe it uses, since at the time it was published, cooks like my mother would have used little cans of not-very-flavorful industrial tomatoes that required some "doctoring" (another common phrase back in the day). I had my roasted Astiana tomatoes that require no zhooshing other than a few slices of garlic.

I had picked up some aged provolone to accompany the Parmegiano Reggiano and Pecorino Romano we always have on hand, so those were mixed and layered with the roasted slices and sauce. The result was a bubbling, rich, gooey, hearty casserole that I think my mom would have approved of.

Eggplant Parmesan

3 lbs. eggplant
6 oz. Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano and/or aged Provolone, grated*
1 qt. roasted tomatoes
3 garlic cloves
Flour
Salt

Preheat oven to 450°.

Slice eggplants lengthwise into 1/4" slices. Salt both sides and place in single layer on paper towels to drain, at least 30 min. Pat dry and dredge in flour, knocking off extra flour that may be clinging to the slices. Line baking sheet(s) with parchment and lay the eggplant slices on the sheet in a single layer, lightly drizzling them with olive oil. Bake eggplant slices for 15 min., then flip slices over and bake another 15 min. Remove from oven and reduce oven heat to 400°.

While eggplant bakes, slice garlic cloves thinly. Heat olive oil in small skillet over medium heat. When the oil shimmers, add garlic slices and heat briefly, then add roasted tomatoes. When sauce just begins to boil, reduce heat and simmer.

Oil casserole or baking dish. Add a thin layer of tomato sauce in the bottom of the dish. Place a single layer of eggplant slices on it, then a thin scattering of grated cheese, then another layer of sauce. Repeat until all the eggplant is used, then top with a final layer of sauce and cheese.

Bake for 30 min. at 400° until bubbling.

* Can be a mix of any of these cheeses, though I used roughly half provolone, half Romano/Parmesan. Also (note to self) a smoked, aged provolone might be, as they say in Italian, perfetto!