Even though it’s been many years since my backpack carried textbooks, the new school year feels like a fresh start. It offers all of the exciting potential of Jan. 1, without the diets. This year, my resolution is simply to simplify. And there’s no better place to begin than with a streamlined weeknight dinner, like ratatouille.
While the name is more likely to conjure images of an animated movie character than a time-saving, hunger-vanquishing meal, ratatouille is my new go-to for the season. It’s fast, inexpensive, and uses an abundance of the farmers market bounty that tastes so good right now. And, yes, the recipe is easy to abridge. Instead of sauteing each vegetable individually, we’re going to throw everything into the pot and get on with our busy evenings.
Start by trimming your vegetables. Eggplant is the only veggie that requires peeling. To save time, I reach for a knife instead of the peeler, and cut away the skin with four quick slices. Use the same knife to cut the ends off the onion, zucchini, yellow squash and bell pepper. Then slice your veggies into long, thin pieces. There’s no need to pull out a ruler. As long as your veggies are about the same size, they will cook evenly. Now, if you’re really on your game, you can chop your veggies over the weekend and store them in a refrigerated, airtight container for up to three days.
Then, when you’re ready to cook, heat a splash of heart-healthy olive oil in a large Dutch oven. Add all of the vegetables and saute for just a few minutes over a medium-high flame. They will be too crowded to brown, but that’s totally fine. We merely want the vegetables to soften before we add the tomatoes. Because this is a school night recipe and simplification is our new mantra, I fully support using canned tomatoes. For a healthier dish, look for tomatoes labeled “no salt added.”
If you are in the throngs of what I call “dinner survival mode,” skip this paragraph and move on to the recipe. Otherwise, let me suggest making homemade crushed tomatoes during the aforementioned weekend meal prep. Late season Roma tomatoes are flavorful and abundant. Transforming them into a reserve of crushed tomatoes means you’re one step closer to placing healthy fare on the table. Simply cook your tomatoes, either by roasting (which makes the house smell heavenly), or boiling, until the skins peel away. Then puree the tomatoes in a blender until they are of the “crushed” consistency. Freeze them in 15- or 28-ounce packages so that they’re ready to add to a typical recipe. They will keep in the freezer for three months, giving you fresh tomato taste without artificial preservatives.
To finish the ratatouille, simmer your chopped vegetables in the crushed tomatoes for a mere 15 minutes, until they are tender, but not mushy. Let the flavor of the vegetables shine with unfussy seasonings: pinches of salt and pepper and a flourish of freshly chopped basil. Serve your ratatouille hot, with crusty bread or rice. Looking for a simple way to add extra protein? Stir in a can of chickpeas, place a fried egg on top, or add a bit of chicken on the side. It’s the new year, friends. The possibilities are infinite.
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