This is the time of year that my city friends have intense fantasies of moving to the country. And well they might. Fecundity has run rampant right outside the Beltway. With the near record rain that our region had in July and August, botanical life went into a frenzy. Fruits and vegetables have come in an abundance that nearly tempts one to move back to the city to avoid it.
My own garden is a case in point. It was overrun by ratatouille -- squash, zucchini, onions, green peppers, tomatoes, garlic, broad-leafed parsley, thyme, basil and, above all, eggplant. The squash and zucchini this year could not, as my neighbor Carolyn points out, be beaten back with a shovel. We went away for a week and returned to zucchini grown to the size of elephant knuckles. At that stage, we simply have squash fights with the stuff. And the Better Boy tomatoes were so gargantuan that they were too wide to fit on a slice of bread for a sandwich.
The real jewels of the garden this year, however, have been the eggplants, hanging beautifully like tender, maroon breasts under their sage green foliage. When I first grew eggplant, it was like discovering a new vegetable altogether. Fresh picked from the garden, it is sweet and flavorful and utterly unlike those bulbous, leathery things that masquerade as food in corner grocery stores.
The definitive celebration of eggplant is the classic French favorite, ratatouille. It is so utterly down to earth as to defy the faddism that seems to sweep much of contemporary food literature: horseradish and nutmeg omlettes, pickled Polynesian quince at $15 a pound and the like. Ratatouille, on the other hand, admits no prima donna rush towards the exotic. It is as stable and straightfoward as cracked wheat bread.
In cooking ratatouille, it is important not to let yourself be intimidated by professionals, who are, after all, people who merely happen to know more than you. Trust your instincts and proceed fearlessly. Start with a large cauldron and about two fingers of good olive oil. It's up to you how much olive oil, that fine artery hardener, your system can tolerate. Use enough, at least, to saute' a lot of vegetables. For six people and a guarantee of lots of leftovers (which is the objective with ratatouille, after all) three largish eggplants will do. And for every eggplant, use one zucchini or summer squash, one large onion, a green pepper, 2-4 cloves of garlic, depending on how Mediterranean you feel, and about six large, peeled tomatoes. The vegetables should be finely chopped -- nearly minced, in fact -- so they will more readily melt and merge and become succulent together in the cooking. After the vegetables, you will need handfuls of fresh herbs: thyme, parsley and basil.
There is a word of warning to be said on the use of basil, as trendy and important as that fine herb is in the city. You don't want to overdo it with the basil. It tends to be pushy. If you must, use it in abundance with mozzarella and tomato slices or in a pesto sauce on pasta or grilled fish. But go easy in the ratatouille. Once there's a bit of basil in a dish, it's hard to ignore -- sort of like Boy George singing with the Mormon Tabernacle choir. Thyme, on the other hand, is a more collegial cooking herb -- a sort of John Denver presence -- that can be used in abandon without drowning out the other ingredients.
Proceeding with the ratatouille, get the olive oil spanking hot and soften the onion and garlic in it, without browning either, which would simply give a toasted taste to the whole affair. After 5 or 10 minutes, dump in the peeled eggplant, the zucchini/squash, green pepper and several handfuls of minced parsley, thyme and, of course, very little basil.
The dish is slightly tricky at this point as the eggplant absorbs the oil with abandon. You have to keep stirring like crazy to avoid scorching the whole batch. After 15 minutes, or whenever your wrist gets tired, dump in the tomatoes and cover the dish, letting it braise and simmer in its own juices for about 1 1/2 hours.
As it simmers, you must, of course, taste it frequently, adding ground pepper, salt, if you must, or more herbs. Some add a bay leaf and others add wine. Do whatever strikes your fancy. If the eggplant are fresh, they don't need much fiddling around with. When the ratatouille is mushy enough for your taste, turn off the stove.
Now, what I relish the most about ratatouille is that, like a successful love affair, it is even better the day after. And it's even better the day after that and versatile as well. Serve it the first time out with a simple piece of roasted or grilled meat -- preferably lamb that has been marinated in garlic for a few days. From then on out, just about anything goes. You can make it into a lasagna, or stuff an omelet with it. You can serve it cold in pita bread with feta cheese sprinkled on top, or warm with a fried egg and hot sauce. Garnish it with capers. You could even improvise a ratatouille pie, I suppose.
Like love, the pleasure is in sampling the dish in a variety of circumstances, but do it quick, because it does not, alas, last forever.