My Recipes|Luke Chavez
August 5, 2021
Every summer, without fail, I am surprised by how productive the zucchini plants are in our garden. With new zucchini sprouting up every night, there is always an abundance of the striped, green summer bounty in our kitchen. This leads to my annual exploration of creative ways to use this prolific garden ingredient. With options ranging from bread, fritters, pasta, and casseroles, the recipes, thankfully, seem endless. Last week, I looked for zucchini inspiration and found it in southern France, a sunny region famous for elevating seasonal homegrown produce into simple and elegant cuisine. Here I present a ratatouille that is as beautiful to look at as it is delicious.
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
Pinch ground nutmeg
1 to 2 cups tomato sauce (see notes)
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 sprigs fresh thyme, stemmed and minced
2 tablespoons fresh basil, minced (plus more)
½ teaspoon crushed chili flake
1 to 2 small eggplants (Asian varieties, see notes)
1 yellow summer squash
2 medium-small yellow or Walla Walla Sweet onions
1 to 2 zucchinis
1 sweet red bell pepper
½ pound white button or cremini mushrooms
Fresh ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Prepare all vegetables. Using a mandoline or very sharp knife (and steady hand), sliced zucchini, squash, onions, and eggplants as thin as possible, into ⅛-inch-thick rounds. Thin slice mushrooms and bell pepper lengthwise.
Make Béchamel Sauce: Heat milk to just under a boil, without scalding, in a small saucepan and set aside. In another saucepan melt butter over medium heat. Whisk in flour to make a smooth paste. Cook, whisking constantly for 2 to 3 minutes, as roux cooks through and bubbles. Pour in the hot milk, in a slow stream, while whisking rapidly to break up clumps. Season with nutmeg, a pinch of salt and pepper. Keep whisking for 3 minutes, until smooth and slightly thickened. Remove from heat and put a round of wax paper or plastic wrap on the surface to prevent skin from forming.
Lightly oil inside of a 10" round casserole dish. Cover bottom with a ½ to 1-inch layer of tomato sauce. Top sauce with minced garlic, fresh herbs, chili flake, and a pinch of salt. Gently stir together, keeping sauce evenly spread across casserole. Pour Béchamel evenly over tomato sauce.
Layer sliced vegetables over sauce. Make stacks of alternating vegetable slices (eggplant, zucchini, mushroom, pepper, onion, squash, etc.) and arrange to stand on their sides, in concentric rings around the dish (see photo), from the edge to the center. The beautiful cut edges of the vegetables will make an attractive presentation. Drizzle, or brush, about two tablespoons of olive oil over the top and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cut a circle of parchment paper that fits perfectly over the casserole and set it on top of vegetables.
Place in oven and bake for 55 to 60 minutes, until vegetables are all tender and the tomato sauce is bubbling on sides. Remove from oven and let cool for 5 to 10 minutes. Garnish top with more chopped fresh basil and serve.
Use your favorite homemade or store-bought tomato sauce, the simpler the better. I used my Magic Tomato Sauce recipe which was featured in the May 27th edition of The Times. (With a subscription readers have access to all my recipe archives on the website, waitsburgtimes.com.)
You want the diameter of your vegetables, particularly the eggplant and zucchini, to be similar so as to make uniform stacks. Thinner Asian varieties of eggplant work nicely, or small Italian eggplants. If you don't have any yellow summer squash, double the amount of zucchini.
Some versions of this classic recipe also include potatoes. Use Yukon gold or red potatoes, that will hold their shape when baked. Slice thin, like the other vegetables, and toss in boiling salted water for 3 to 4 minutes to par-cook. Drain and lay potato slices on towels to cool and dry before assembling the dish.
This dish is a celebration of beautiful produce, making a bright vegetarian entrée or a gorgeous side dish to simple grilled meat. Serve with plenty of the sauce from the bottom of the dish scooped on a plate, and perhaps some crusty bread on the side. A chilled glass of a dry rose from Provence would be a fabulous pairing. Bon appétit!