The basic elements are constant: eggplant, summer squash, sweet peppers, tomato, garlic. But ratatouille's final form and function can vary greatly, from main dish stew to side dish gratin to a sort of elaborate salad. When ratatouille is done right, the various ingredients blend harmoniously, yet somehow remain distinct. The sound of a well-grooved jazz combo comes to mind (is it any surprise I'm suddenly hearing Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli in my head...?).
When ratatouille goes bad it becomes an overcooked, non-descript mush with the tinny back-taste of lousy tomatoes. Ironically, most of the bad rat's I've had, I've had in France--but in northern France, and that's the key. Much as I love French cooking, it must be recognized that the French are almost comically inept at incorporating foreign influences into their cuisine. When curry and chilies make their way into the French kitchen, the flavor is often so faint, it's as if the cook just held the jar of spice up for the stew pot to see, then put it away unopened. An "egg roll" we were once served at the vaunted Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Paris was such a silly, useless thing, any pho joint on University Avenue would kick its derrière right back to culinary school.
But I digress, just a little. My point is that the same lack of comprehension that befuddles French cooks dealing with foreign ingredients also seems to afflict northern chefs dealing with dishes from the south. They just really don't get garlic, olive oil, and tomatoes--not in a Provencal way, at any rate. But then, you wouldn't go out for choucroute garnie in Arles, would you?
Well, I'm not Provencal, and I haven't even traveled there, so I'm probably just talking through mon chapeau. What I do know is that when confronted with the gorgeous eggplants, chilies, tomatoes, garlic, etc., now spilling off the tables at our farmers market, you just have to put them together, one way or another, and this grilled ratatouille that we cooked up out at Bide-A-Wee last week made a fresh and delicious variation on the Provencal theme. We neglected to pick up any summer squash, so our grilled version is actually one zucchini short of a ratatouille, but I can't say we missed it much.
The eggplant was the star, a fantastic Italian heirloom variety that came from our market neighbors and pals Joe and Laura of Honey Creek Farm. It made a sweet, creamy base that really brought the rest of the flavors together. Many recipes using eggplant call for slicing and salting the eggplant to draw out bitter juices, but I think that with fresh, firm summer market eggplants, that's unnecessary (and it may go without saying, but I wouldn't do this dish with anything else; winter ratatouille, merci, non). The skinny Asian eggplants are always mild and sweet, and could be used here.
The peppers we had were mildly hot, splendidly red, thick-fleshed and sweet despite the heat. Wonderful. The traditional bell peppers can be grilled and peeled just the same. I would only use ripe red peppers, as I detest green bells, but that's a question of taste.
Here's what we did, then: For two people we had one medium eggplant, around a pound. One half red onion (but any other color would work as well). Two red chilies--the equivalent of one good-sized bell, I'd say. The white of one leek. One really big clove of SuperGarlic!, which would be like three large cloves of any other, mortal garlic--from Jackie of Sylvan Hills Organic Farm . A couple medium, exquisitely ripe tomatoes. A handful of fresh basil leaves.
The eggplant we sliced about 3/4-inch thick, and brushed the slices with olive oil. The other vegetables went on the grill as is--if you're using summer squash, treat it the same as the eggplant. Over natural wood coals, grill the vegetables until they are nicely charred and tender. For the eggplant, that meant four to five minutes on a side. Ours got pretty dark, but didn't taste burnt in the final dish. For the peppers or chilies, cook until the skin is blackened all over, let sit a while, then peel, seed and chop. (Placing grilled chilies in a paper bag to help loosen the skin is common practice, and does work, but isn't necessary.)
The leek we grilled until it was really black on the outside, then we took off that layer and chopped the rest. The onion, just keep turning until it gets nice color on all sides. (While the vegetables rested, we grilled Pastures A'Plenty country-style pork ribs, to be glazed and served with a cider-red wine sauce.)
To assemble, finish, and serve: Roughly chop all the grilled vegetables. Seed and chop the tomatoes. Slice the garlic medium-thin. In a large saucepan or sauté pan, heat about two tablespoons of good olive oil. Add the garlic and swirl it about until it just barely starts to color. Add all the other vegetables, and a couple good pinches of salt, and a grind of black pepper. Toss it all about for a couple of minutes only. Turn off the heat, tear the basil leaves up and drop them in. Serve.
The ribs, some polenta (organic, Whole Grain Milling Co.), the ratatouille, slice of Real Toast.
There was some of the ratatouille left over; it was even better two days later.