Ratatouille for Lazy Busy People

In Which I Make a Favorite Early Fall Dish Using A Slow Cooker

My mother gave me a slow cooker last year, and it’s slowly but surely found its way into my culinary repertoire. You just chop up a bunch of stuff, throw it in, leave it alone for a few hours and boom! Food! I find meals made in a slow cooker in the fall and winter feel really cozy and comforting, so this season I made a resolution to discover more slow-cooked meals to add to my “rotation.”

This ratatouille recipe is what I think of as a “harvest” meal. All the fruits and veggies are pouring in, right before the season of squashes and potatoes, and what you have are lots of tomatoes, bell peppers and zucchinis galore. It’s priced to sell at the grocery store because it’s so plentiful, so I love to buy this kind of produce up. Ratatouille is a really nice way to use up an over abundance. I’ve had all kinds of ratatouille, from country stew-type of ones to more casserole-consistency. And they’ve all been good.

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This particular recipe is the simplest one I’ve found. Here, the slow cooking really works to its advantage — slow-cooking the tomatoes really brings out the flavor, and you don’t even need a lot of oil. (Promise!) I found this in, believe it or not, that book French Women Don’t Get Fat. I thumbed through it at the airport bookstore a few years ago and this recipe caught my eye — it looked so unbelievably simple that even I could make it! So I surreptitiously jotted the recipe down, and when I got back to NYC, I made the dish — and I’ve been making it for years now. (I gank a surprising number of recipes this way, it’s so bad — just go to the library or bookstore, find a cookbook, find the one thing that I can manage and then scribble all the ingredients and steps down!) The original recipe called for it to cook over very low heat on the stove in a large stockpot, but I adapted it to the slow cooker. I think it transfers nicely.

It’s a superbly versatile dish, too. You first eat it as a thick and hearty soup, but the leftovers can be a satisfying omelette filler, a side dish to grilled or broiled chicken or fish, then sauce to a pasta dish and finally as a pizza topping. (Just throw on top of a flatbread or naan, top with some cheese and perhaps some more veggies and then stick it in the oven.) Anyway, the recipe is below…happy slow-cooking!

Slow-Cooked Ratatouille (Serves 6-8)

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2 lbs. tomatoes
2 lbs. zucchini
2 lbs. eggplant
About 8 cloves of garlic, chopped up
A bunch of fresh parsley and/or basil, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Some herbs de Provence

Wash and cut the veggies into thick slices. (I find it helpful to keep them about the same width. Thicker slices make for a more stew-y soup.)

In either a large stockpot (if you’re going stove) or your slow-cooker pot, start layering the veggies, adding garlic, some fresh parsley and/or basil, salt/pepper and maybe a tiny bit of herbes de Provence every so often. Start with the eggplant: create a single layer of them to line the bottom of the pot, then layer tomatoes, then zucchini, throwing some garlic, herbs, parsley and salt/pepper between each layer. (If making in a slow cooker, you’ll want to consult instructions for how high the food should be in the pot — mine advises to leave about two inches from the top, but yours could be different.)

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Cover and cook over very low heat. If you make this on a stovetop, it will take about 2 to 2 1/2 hours. For a slow cooker, I use the low setting and it takes about 4-5 hours, but the high one takes about 2 to 2 1/2 hours. You’re basically cooking till the veggies are tender, and the water from them creates a nice veggie soup base.

When the veggies are soft and tender, remove from heat and let cool. Correct the seasoning (sometimes I’ll add a bit of soup stock, or garlic salt). If you want, add a tiny bit of extra-virgin olive oil or butter. If you’re eating right away, it’s quite souplike, so serve in soup bowls with some yummy French or country bread and some cheese (I love goat cheese and honey.)

Variations: You can also chop and dice yellow or green bell peppers and mushrooms and sprinkle a bit between layers of tomatoes, eggplants and zucchini if you’re looking for some variety. I’ve also done this recipe using canned diced tomatoes in a pinch — in that case, I also roughly chop the eggplant and zucchini so the pieces are uniform. You can also use yellow squash instead of zucchini, which make things even more colorful. Sometimes I’ll saute some chopped and diced onions in olive oil in a separate pan, and then add them halfway in the slow cooker. (I add a bit of cooking time in a slow cooker for each time you open the lid. Letting out any heat can make a big difference!)

The recipe is so simple and can be customized in many ways. Be colorful and creative!

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