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Cook Smarter

Pinch saffron

Salt and pepper to taste

For the mise en place: Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil.

Home Work

The first key to professional-style home cooking is to organize an assembly line of individual stations where you measure, chop and cook -- each in discrete stages.

The second key is to take breaks between each stage.

• Start clean: Put on a clean apron and turn on your favorite music. Clear your counters and stove top of any extraneous equipment or ingredients and sponge them down. What the heck -- if you want to really play professional, pretend the health inspector might show up and sweep your floor, too. Then go look at the sky.

• Assemble all your equipment. Place any pots you'll need on your burners and make sure all utensils are easy to reach. Set out your favorite cutting board and place a damp towel beneath it to ensure that it does not slide. Sharpen your knife. Dance to the music a little.

• Assemble your ingredients. If your counters are separated into different areas by your sink and stove, consider using one as your work space and another for your raw materials.

If you are working from a recipe, use the ingredient list as a checklist. Pull out all your "dry stores": all the oils, vinegars, spices and seasonings you will need. If you like using ramekins, go ahead and measure the ingredients at this point, too. Otherwise, put the containers in an area with measuring spoons and cups nearby. Before opening the refrigerator door, review every vegetable and fruit you'll need, then pull them all out at once. Check out the evening news.

• Wash, peel, chop. . . . Then wash all your vegetables, peel whatever needs to be peeled and start chopping. As you finish each ingredient, place the prepped materials in individual bowls and set aside for easy retrieval later. I like to start with vegetables and do meats and fish last to keep my cutting board as sanitary as possible. When all the prep is done, wash and put away the cutting board and knife, and take another rest if you're not pressed for time. The cooking comes next, so it's nice to be refreshed.

-- Emily Kaiser

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Meanwhile, gather all of the ingredients. Scrub the zucchini, eggplant and bell peppers under cool running water and pat them dry.

Julienne the zucchini and eggplant. (That is, cut them into matchstick-size strips 1/4 inch wide and 1 1/2 inches long.) Place the zucchini in one bowl and the eggplant in another and set aside.

Stem and seed the peppers and cut them into segments according to their natural indentations. Using a vegetable peeler, peel the skin from the raw bell peppers. Julienne the peppers as you did the zucchini and eggplant. Place the peppers in a bowl.

Peel the onions, keeping the stem end attached to the onion. Using a sharp knife, halve the onions. Place them cut side down on the cutting board. Slice the onions vertically into 1/4-inch thick strips. You should have slender strips of onion. Place the onion in a bowl.

Using a sharp knife, make a small cross incision in the base of each tomato. When the water has come to a boil, immerse the tomatoes in the water for 1 to 2 minutes, until the skin starts to separate from the flesh. Using a slotted spoon or strainer, transfer the tomatoes to a bowl and immediately place them under cold running water. When the tomatoes have cooled, peel off the skins and discard. Then core, seed and julienne the tomatoes. Place the remaining tomato flesh aside in a bowl.

Smash, peel and finely dice the garlic. Set aside in a bowl.

Assemble the ingredients for a bouquet garni. Gather the parsley and rosemary together, then stack the basil leaves atop one another and wrap them around the sprigs of other herbs to form a cylinder. Tie the ingredients together using kitchen string.

For the cooking: In a deep sauté pan or casserole, heat 1 1/2 tablespoons of the oil over medium-high heat. Saute the zucchini, stirring occasionally, until the strips are cooked through and just starting to turn golden. Transfer the zucchini to a plate, spread it in a single layer and season with salt, pepper and 1 tablespoon of thyme. Set aside.

In the same saucepan, heat another 1 1/2 tablespoons of oil, still over medium-high heat. Add the eggplant, stir to coat the pieces with oil, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant is cooked through and just starting to brown, about 4 minutes. Transfer the eggplant to a plate, spread it in a single layer and season with salt, pepper and the remaining thyme.

Return the saucepan to medium-high heat, heat another 1 1/2 tablespoons of oil and sauté the onions, stirring occasionally, until they are soft, about 5 minutes. Add the bell peppers and cook, stirring occasionally, another 2 to 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes, bouquet garni and garlic. You may either add the saffron now or later.

The recipe allows for two options. If you prefer a stew-like ratatouille in which the ingredients simmer together, then reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste, then proceed to the final assembly.

If you prefer a firmer, less stew-like ratatouille in which the flavor of each vegetable stands out, combine the vegetables only during the final assembly.

Final assembly: Add the zucchini and eggplant to the pan. If you haven't added the saffron already, add it now, cover and simmer another 20 minutes. Remove from the heat. Remove and discard the bouquet garni. Set aside to cool to room temperature before serving. Taste and adjust the seasoning accordingly. Drizzle a little oil over the ratatouille before serving.

Per serving (based on 8): 160 calories, 4 gm protein, 21 gm carbohydrates, 8 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 71 mg sodium, 7 gm dietary fiber

Emily Kaiser is a Washington writer. She can be reached through emilykaiser.com.

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