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Making, serving ratatouille open to interpretation

It’s considered a perfect summer dish, simmered or sautéed from the symphony of seasonal vegetables.

But I always come to ratatouille a bit later in the year. About now, when nights have turned chilly, but frost hasn’t set in, when the garden growth has slowed, leaving odd-shaped vegetables with little chance of sizing up, I start rounding them up for ratatouille. The first days of fall put me in the mood for stew, after all.

And stew is what ratatouille in its classic form most closely resembles, the quintessential vegetable stew of Provence, to be more precise. No matter what the experts say, however, it’s not a precisely prepared dish. It’s rustic, homey, meant to be enjoyed with crusty bread that isn’t sliced, but ripped, from the loaf for dunking.

At least one expert, chef and writer James DeWan, acknowledged in a recent column for the Chicago Tribune that ratatouille can vary wildly depending on the ratios of vegetables used and how long they’re cooked. And the cook’s preference overrides any established recipe or method.

I personally can’t conscience mushy zucchini while I love super soft, almost disintegrating eggplant. Consequently, a cute, little acronym — EZ-POT — that I encountered years ago while watching the Food Network has never borne out in my kitchen. “Easy pot” is a nice way to remember the order for cooking ratatouille vegetables — eggplant, zucchini, peppers, onions, tomatoes — provided you like your eggplant and zucchini falling apart and your peppers and onions crunchy. I go about it in almost reverse order.

DeWan also bills this dish as a good one for practicing knife skills, the topic of my upcoming column in the newspaper's food section. Conscientiously cutting the veggies encourages each to cook to a uniform doneness, yielding the best texture.

Texture also is enhanced by peeling some of the vegetables, depending on your aversion to skins. I’m of the ilk who really, really, REALLY do not like shards and strips of tomato skins, sticking like cellphone tape to the tongue, in an otherwise smooth mouthful. Perhaps contrarily, I like eggplant skins and find that leaving them intact helps to keep mushy eggplant from disintegrating completely into unrecognizable glop.

DeWan and I do agree that onions should be diced small, which is how I prefer my peppers, too. In a perfect world, the bell peppers in my ratatouille would be roasted and peeled and added to the mixture with the tomatoes. But I realize that’s tantamount to heresy for some cooks, for all their touting of ratatouille as a make-it-your-way recipe.

Serving ratatouille really is wide open to interpretation. Enjoy it hot, cold or at room temperature as a main dish or alongside grilled meat or seafood. Toss ratatouille with pasta or fold it into an omelet. Spread it on bread, top with cheese and grill for a flavor-packed sandwich. Bake it in gratin dishes and crack a few eggs over the surface for a classic French bistro dish. Ratatouille freezes well, particularly if that mushy texture is your goal.

Ratatouille

3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more as needed

1 medium eggplant, peeled (if desired) and cut into medium (1/2-inch) or large (3/4-inch) dice

Salt, as needed

1/2 large onion, peeled and cut into small dice

1 to 2 green or yellow bell peppers, cored and cut into medium (1/2-inch) or large (3/4-inch) dice

2 medium summer squash (zucchini, golden squash, etc.), cut into medium (1/2-inch) or large (3/4-inch) dice

2 to 4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes or 4 to 6 fresh tomatoes, peeled (if desired) and cut into medium dice

1 to 2 tablespoons fresh herbs (thyme, oregano, basil, herbs de Provence, etc., or a mix), or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Heat a heavy bottomed skillet or stock pot over medium high heat. When hot, add the 3 tablespoons oil and let heat, for about 15 seconds. Add the eggplant, season with salt and saute until tender, for 5 to 7 minutes. Remove to a bowl.

Add more oil to pot if needed, then add the onion and peppers; saute until onions are just starting to color and peppers are tender, for about 2 minutes. Add the squash; saute until tender, for about 3 minutes. Add the garlic; saute until fragrant, for about 30 seconds.

Stir in half the tomato and reserved, cooked eggplant along with the herbs, salt to taste and several grinds of the pepper. Add remaining tomato if you want and when liquid starts to bubble, reduce heat and simmer to blend flavors, for about 10 minutes.

Check seasoning, then serve immediately or hold, refrigerated, up to 5 days. May be served hot or at room temperature.

Makes about 8 servings.

Tribune News Service photo