From age five to age nine, I lived on a cul-de-sac on a suburban island across the lake from Seattle. It was pretty much what you would expect a cul-de-sac on a suburban island to be like. It was safe, quiet, and there was literally a pony living in a stable near our house. His name was Fury and it suited him because he was just about the meanest equine creature I have ever come across. He was even meaner than Nellie Gray, the horse that bucked me off its back in camp the year I was eleven. Fury’s meaness didn’t stop us and the neighborhood kids from feeding him our watermelon rinds each summer while trying to pet his soft nose.
There were children in almost every house and the one house that didn’t have kids had a garage sale every year where they would let each child have whatever they wanted for 25 cents. We thought they were pretty all right. The family next door to us had four girls which, when we moved in, I thought was the greatest thing in the world. Four built-in best friends! But no, it was not to be. The oldest girl was a year older than me and, while she was nice, she was quiet and kind off in her own world. Plus she also sometimes wore a patch to correct a lazy eye which scared me a little. The youngest was just a baby so she didn’t interest me much and the two middle girls were shockingly mean. Just cruel nasty girls who were not afraid to torment, tease, and hit. One day I summoned up the courage to hit one of them back and my mom was exceedingly proud of me for standing up for myself.
Even though we were very far from being the best friends that I had hoped we would be, the neighbor girls and I spent a lot of time together. They had a sandbox and trees that were easy to climb and we had long days where we played Grease and rode our bikes endlessly up and down the hill of the cul-de-sac. We discussed whether Andy Gibb, Donny Osmond, or Shaun Cassidy was the cutest and which flavor of Bonnie Bell lipsmackers tasted the best. We disagreed about whether pizza or spaghetti was our favorite food but we were in total agreement about what was our least favorite. No doubt about it. Mixed vegetables.
I’m not sure what constituted mixed vegetables in my eight-year-old world and I’m not sure my mom ever even made something so vague. But it sure sounded terrible. The neighbor girls’ mom apparently made mixed vegetables almost every night and they would tell me how truly awful it was. They were forced to eat red and green peppers – the horror! Of course, this is funny now because almost all of my meals involve vegetables and they are often mixed. I can’t imagine my life without mixed vegetables.
To a mixed vegetable hater, ratatouille would pretty much be the worst dish imaginable. Lots of vegetables, pretty mushy, and definitely mixed. Matt and I have been trying to get our families together for a while now and we finally both had a night open on Sunday. Because Matt often teases me for my vegetarian ways, even though his lovely wife is now vegetarian and he admittedly is happy to eat that way, I thought a large dish of mixed vegetables was in order. I took the recipe from a book that we both admire greatly – Plenty.
There are different schools of thought when it comes to ratatouille. Some people think you should cook each vegetable separately so that each retains its identity and the mush factor is reduced. Some people encourage long and slow cooking. Some people think ratatouille should contain only the more traditional vegetables – peppers, eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes. Others think that more should be invited to the party.
The Plenty version goes along with schools of thought #2 and #4. These mixed vegetables got a long simmer on the stove followed by some time in the oven. The vegetables are added in a certain order but ultimately, they spend a lot of time together getting cooked way waayyy down. Lots of other vegetables besides the traditional ones appear in this recipe and I balked at a few. Parsnip and sweet potato? In ratatouille? I just couldn’t picture them in there so I left them out, but I was open-minded enough to allow potato, winter squash, and string beans. I was very happy to have purchased every single vegetable – from the onion that is added first to the parsley that is added last – at the farmers market. Unfortunately, I made the very bad mistake of actually over seasoning this dish but while it was salty, it was still very good.
When all was said and done, I don’t know that I would actually call this ratatouille. It’s really more like, um, mixed vegetables. I would make this dish again and cook it the same way but I would probably add some saffron to it, maybe along with some smoked paprika, turning it into more of a Spanish stew. That I would serve with a big plate of white beans and roasted tomatoes instead of the polenta I served with this one. Recipe coming tomorrow.
I used a delicata squash in this recipe which has an edible skin so I did not peel it.
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, sliced thin
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and finely diced
2 red peppers, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 small winter squash, peeled and seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces
½ pound green beans, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 medium zucchini, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 small eggplant, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 medium potato, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
1 tsp. sugar
1 tbsp. tomato paste
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Place a large and preferably oven proof pot over medium heat. Add just enough olive oil to coat the bottom and then add the onions and a large pinch of salt. Sauté for 5 minutes, then stir in the garlic, chile, and red peppers and fry for another 5 minutes. Add the winter squash and continue frying for another 5 minutes.
Remove the vegetables from the pot and set aside in a bowl. Add a bit more oil and then add the green beans, zucchini, and eggplant to the hot oil and fry for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Return the contents of the bowl to the pot. Add the potato, tomatoes, sugar, tomato paste, and another large pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Stir well and allow to cook for 5 minutes. Pour in enough water to half cover the vegetables. Cover with a lid and leave to simmer gently, lowering heat as necessary, for 30 minutes. Taste the vegetables and add more salt and pepper to taste.
Preheat the oven to 400ºF. If your pot is oven-proof, remove the cover and place the pot in the oven. If not, transfer the vegetables and their liquid to a large deep roasting pan. Either way, bake for 30 minutes or until the vegetables are very soft and most of the liquid has evaporated. Stir in the parsley and serve.