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How to Make These Vegetables Taste Like Candy

Alex Van Buren

How to Make These Vegetables Taste Like Candy

Let’s do this thing. Photo credit: Getty Images

As a kid, I loathed vegetables. Iceberg lettuce, boiled-to-death cabbage, and not-quite-baked-enough potatoes dominated our Irish-American dinner table (although my mom was, and is, a crack fish cook). 

It wasn’t till my 20s, at a friend’s birthday picnic, that I tried a veggie dish that really, truly floored me. A trained cook and food writer, he’d spent all afternoon cooking down the best August produce (eggplants, tomatoes, zucchini, and summer squash. He packed the results into a jar, passing it around with a spoon. And everyone who tasted it looked astonished. 

Have you ever had great ratatouille? The restaurant version typically pales in comparison to the one you can make yourself. The base comprises garlic, shallots, sweet red peppers, and the most fragrant tomatoes at the market. Texture and an extra hit of sweetness come from lightly caramelized eggplant and zucchini, which you fold in right at the end. 

You’ll spend a few hours cooking it, yes, but thanks to that caramelization, all the vegetables are the best they can be—the going-to-prom-decked-out versions of themselves. 

This ratatouille is straight-up vegetable candy, designed to convert former vegetable haters like me.

If you’re wise, you’ll make it before the summer is out. Save a little batch and pop it in the freezer. “It’ll still be awesome in the dead of winter,” wrote the birthday boy, who gave us his recipe below, “when tomatoes taste about as good as tennis balls. (As it saved one Valentine’s Day, we can vouch for that.) 

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It ain’t pretty, but it sure is tasty. Photo credit: Alex Van Buren

Weapons-Grade Ratatouille
by Francis Lam for Salon.com
Makes about 1/2 gallon

1 head garlic, minced
3 shallots, minced
1 large onion (about 12 ounces), minced
½ cup of extra-virgin olive oil (yes, that much. Summertime is living it up time.)
A couple more glugs of olive oil. Hell, just keep the bottle handy.
Salt and pepper
2 large red peppers, puréed in the food processor
4 pounds of very good regular field tomatoes, or fancy heirlooms if you’re rich. Just make sure they’re the kind you eat a piece of … and then involuntarily eat another piece of a minute later. Oh, and purée them in the food processor too.
2½ pounds of summer squash and zucchini, ½-inch dice
1½ pounds of eggplant, diced into ½-inch cubes
Thyme and basil to taste

Start by cooking the garlic, shallot and onion in the ½ cup of olive oil over medium-low to low heat in a heavy pot so that they soften and give up their liquid. Stir and try not to let them brown. (Meanwhile, cut the other vegetables; you’ll be waiting a while.) Season lightly with salt and pepper.

Once they become a pale golden sticky mess, add the puréed red pepper and let it get all nice and friendly. Season lightly with salt and pepper. The red pepper should have a ton of water, so let it cook down, stirring every few minutes to make sure nothing gets too caramelized and burned, until — after God knows how long — you’ll have a rich, rusty jam.

To which, of course, you’ll add your load of puréed tomatoes. Bring it to a boil, and turn it way down to let that baby snooze off all its liquid. Season lightly with — guess what? — salt and pepper. You’ve probably already been cooking for an hour or more at this point. You’re not even close to being there yet. You’re concentrating its sugar and tartness, and it’s going to be all umami-oooo-Mommy. It’s worth it. Around this time, fire up your oven to 450. Stir the tomatoes occasionally, just so they don’t burn at the bottom.

Meanwhile, toss the zucchini with salt, pepper and olive oil. Taste a piece. Doesn’t it taste good? It’s going to be even better after you roast it hard in one layer on a baking tray. After the sizzling starts to slow down in the oven, take a peek. Are you getting some nice browning underneath? Great. Take it out, let it cool a bit before putting it in a big bowl and do it again until you run out of squash. Then do the same with the eggplant, putting it in the same bowl, and let them wait for the minister to their wedding.

When the 6 pounds of stuff you cooked in the tomato pot can be packed into a pint of good-God-DAMN goodness, it will have flavor that doesn’t quit — a finish that lasts forever. You’ll know it’s ready when it gives the oil back up, it makes squishy noises when you stir it, and when you taste it and suddenly want to punch a hole in the wall.

Now you’re ready to finish. Chop up some thyme and basil, as much as you like (I like a lot. Shocker), and stir the herbs into the tomato base. Carefully combine the tomato with the rest of the vegetables so that you don’t mash up your zucchini and eggplant. It’s victory lap time. Stick a spoon into it and feed it to people you love. Then wrap it up tightly and let it sit in the fridge for a day; it’ll be even better tomorrow — the flavors meld, the herbs work their way through the whole thing. Just let it come back to room temperature when you serve it, to your favorite people and maybe with some cheese and bread, and try not to break too much furniture.

Keeps in the fridge for up to 3-4 days. It does freeze well, though, if you fill up the container so there’s not much air in it and wrap it tightly in several layers of plastic wrap. Let it thaw in the fridge, and it’ll still be awesome in the dead of winter, when tomatoes taste about as good as tennis balls.