I'll Bite

Don’t fear the eggplant, people

Ratatouille is good enough to make you eager for eggplant season.
Ratatouille is good enough to make you eager for eggplant season. Observer files

Is there anything better than starting Monday with something you can pack for lunch for a couple of days? Skillet ratatouille, you are my happy place.

Late summer is usually when I pull out the really complicated ratatouille recipe from Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” You make a tomato sauce from scratch, then saute or broil planks of eggplant and zucchini separately before layering it all with the tomato sauce and baking the whole thing.

It’s fantastic, worth every bite, and you end up with a big casserole full to use all work. Unfortunately, it’s also a lot of work on a busy weekend afternoon.

Then there’s the other approach: Dice it all up, toss it together in a skillet and cook it all until it’s soft. Works just as well and also tastes mighty fine. When I scored some very small, very tender eggplants on Saturday at the Charlotte Regional Farmer’s Market, I knew which way I was going to go. I added a couple of small zucchini, a few flame-striped plum tomatoes and a red onion. I used dried Herbs de Provence, although fresh thyme would be just as good.

It’s short work to get it all in a skillet to simmer.

Here’s my shortcut version and the classic from Julia. Either move is the right one when zucchini, tomatoes and eggplants are loading farmer’s market stands. And cold ratatouille in your lunchbox is a first step toward a really good lunch at your desk.

You’re welcome.

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis

Skillet Ratatouille

2 medium or 6 small eggplants

1 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided, plus more to taste

3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more if needed

1/2 red onion, peeled and sliced

2 or 3 meaty plum tomatoes

2 zucchini, about 6 inches long

2 to 3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves or 1 teaspoon dried thyme or Herbs de Provence

Trim off the stem ends of the eggplant (the little green caps). Slice eggplants lengthwise, then in 1/2-inch slices. Toss with 1 teaspoon salt, place in a sieve and set in the sink to drain while you get the rest ready.

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet with a lid. Add the onion, cover and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook about 5 minutes, until the onion is softening. While the onion is cooking, trim the zucchini, slice in half lengthwise, then cut into bite-size pieces. Core the tomato, slice in half, then cut into slices.

Add the garlic to the onions and cook about 30 seconds. Add the zucchini, tomato and drained eggplant. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon salt and the thyme or herbs de Provence. Cover and cook over medium-low heat about 15 minutes.

Uncover and stir well. Add a little more oil if anything is sticking. Cook uncovered about 5 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature, as a side dish, or on pasta, or use as a cold salad.

Yield: About 4 servings.

Classic Ratatouille

Adapted from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” by Julia Child, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle.

1/2 pound eggplant

1/2 pound zucchini

1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

6 to 7 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1/2 pound yellow onions, thinly sliced

1 to 2 green bell peppers, seeded and sliced

2 cloves garlic, minced

Freshly ground pepper

2 large, firm ripe tomatoes

3 tablespoons minced flat leaf parsley

Peel the eggplant, cut off the stem and cut lengthwise into 3-by-1-by-3/8-inch slices. Trim off zucchini ends. Cut into slices about the same size as the eggplant. Place vegetable slices in a large non-aluminum bowl (glass or plastic are fine). Toss with 1 teaspoon salt; let stand 30 minutes. Drain and pat slices dry on paper towels.

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook eggplant and zucchini slices in batches until lightly browned, about 1 minute per side, adding more olive oil as needed. Set vegetables aside.

Cook onions and bell peppers in the same skillet in 2 to 3 tablespoons oil until tender but not browned, about 10 minutes. Stir in garlic and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Peel tomatoes while the onions and pepper cook by dipping in boiling water, then in ice water to loosen the skins. (Or use a serrated-edge peeler.) Cut out tomato stems, cut tomatoes in half and squeeze out the seeds and excess juice. Slice tomato pulp into 3/8-inch strips. Lay tomato strips over the onion and peppers in the skillet. Season with salt and pepper.

Cover skillet; cook over medium-low heat until tomatoes begin to render juice, about 5 minutes. Uncover and baste tomatoes with cooking juices. Increase heat; boil until juice has almost evaporated, about 2 minutes.

Place 1/3 of the tomato/onion mixture in a heavy Dutch oven or heavy casserole. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon parsley. Arrange half of the eggplant and zucchini on top. Top with the half of the remaining tomato mixture and parsley. Top with the remaining eggplant and zucchini slices. Finish with remaining tomato mixture and parsley.

Cover and simmer over low heat for 10 minutes. Uncover, tip casserole and baste with rendered juices. Adjust seasoning if necessary. Raise heat slightly. Cook, uncovered, until most of the juices have evaporated, about 15 minutes. Stir often to keep vegetables from scorching on the bottom. Serve hot, cold or at room temperature.

Yield: About 8 servings.