Ratatouille Wins One for Zucchinni, or Maybe Cucumber - september 10, 2010

As I've mentioned before, I don't love eggplant. But this is their season, so mixed with some good tomatoes, peppers, an onion and whatever zucchini you have cluttering up your counter (or fridge or garden), they're really not so bad. Especially when served over saffron rice. With lots of butter and salt. The rice is my favorite part of this dinner. 

Ratatouille is not hard to make, though its best done in stages, and can be made a day ahead and even served cold if you really don't want to cook. Which makes it especially well suited to the wacky weather we've been having around here. I can heat the house by cooking ratatouille when it is 55˚ outside, then serve it cold with a squeeze of lemon the next day when it is 95˚. 

My kids won't touch the eggplant, but they do love the rice. Of course eating rice in our house always makes for a huge cleanup, but I just try to serve the kids early, then make my husband fix the mess when he gets home. He's always good for that, with only moderate to severe grumbling. After dinner, their plates look about the same as before, but with rice strewn all over the floor and stuck to their clothing. Sometimes they eat the fruit, usually the sausage (if its Aidell's chicken apple) and always the bread (when there is bread). I force them to drink the milk under threat of whatever seems appropriate at the time and occasionally offer dessert for extra good behavior or three clean compartments and two bites of the fourth. 


Whoever came up with partition plates for kids should win a Nobel prize for promoting child health. Or better yet, a big statue on the Embarcadero, out in front of the Ferry Building. In addition to royalties from the sale of a new book, Feeding Kids for Dummies. Because that is what the plate does. Even at my most witless and sleep-deprived, I can still come up with a well balanced, unplanned meal at day's end. I simply fill one compartment with whatever my husband and I are having for dinner, then sort through the fridge to fill the rest - one vegetable, one protein, one grain, one fruit. Or whatever else is in there. The variety usually makes it healthy enough.

Similar to the partition plate, my kids' lunchboxes are those bento style boxes that have multiple little compartments. Since the beginning of this school year I have filled one compartment up with raw bits of different vegetables each day - carrots, cauliflower, radishes, snap peas. Sometimes red and yellow pepper, often broccoli, occasionally cucumber and on super special occasions, miniature purple carrots with orange insides. Sometimes I add a little container of dressing, most often a quickie vinaigrette (1/2 teaspoon champagne vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon mustard, 1 teaspoon olive oil, shake it up), or just a little container of salt, especially if radishes are included. 

About half of the veggies go uneaten, but even so, my daughter has been eating things I was certain she didn't like. Last week she ate some cucumber, for the first time ever, and she has tried pepper and snap peas too. The day she ate the cucumber was also Ratatouille day. After polishing off her berries, rice, sausage and then asking for another, I offered her two bites of ice cream if she would eat two bites of ratatouille. After great deliberation and with much fanfare, she selected a piece of zucchini as her first bite, and then another for her second. 

"I love it!" She announced. "I want this in my lunchbox...cucumber cooked just like this one, plain, with nothing on it. No tomatoes or eggplant or onions," she told me, disdainfully pushing the rejected vegetables around their tiny compartment. And now I plan to steam zucchini for her lunchbox. And call it cucumber. Because with a situation as tenuous and fickle as a Kindergartener eating vegetables, I can't afford to go wrong.


Ratatouille: (adapted from The Joy of Cooking)

Buy the book.

1/4 cup olive oil

1 medium eggplant (about 1 pound) peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

1 pound zucchini, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 large onion, chopped

2 large red bell peppers, cut into 1-inch squares

3 cloves garlic, chopped

2 really big or 3 medium tomatoes, seeded and chopped (slice in half widthwise, then squeeze over the sink to seed)

3 or 4 sprigs fresh thyme

1 bay leaf

1/4 cup chopped basil (or 2 Tablespoons pesto if you don't have fresh basil)

Start by peeling and chopping the eggplant, then liberally cover it with salt and let it sit in a colander in the sink for twenty minutes or longer, if you need to. This step is especially important if your eggplant is on the older side, it will help remove the bitterness. While it sits in salt you can prep the rest of the veggies, and then rinse and dry the eggplant pieces before cooking them. If your eggplant is fresh off the plant, you can skip this step. 

When your eggplant has been salted long enough, rinse it off and pat it dry. Warm most of the olive oil (but not all, reserve two or three Tablespoons) in a skillet over medium high heat, then saute the eggplant and zucchini for about 10 minutes, until it is tender. Remove it from the pan. Add the remaining olive oil and the onions, garlic, and peppers. Saute those vegetables until the onions are translucent and the other veggies tender and fragrant. 

Add the tomatoes, thyme and bay leaf, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for about 20 minutes, until the vegetables are as squishy as you want them to be. Taste and season with salt and pepper, and stir in the basil or pesto. 

To make saffron rice, add a large pinch of saffron threads to your rice cooker, then add butter and salt to taste after it is cooked. Serve it with the ratatouille, hot or cold with a squeeze of lemon.


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