Summer ends when the season ends, some time in the midst of every September. The 22nd? 21st? The sun crosses a time line and the word ‘summer’ is an afterthought, yet for most people, Labor Day signals the official end of the best season Minnesota has to offer. I’m more optimistic. I like to step outside the box, and while others are saying ‘Fall’ when school buses roll down the streets again, I’m still crowing ‘Summer’. I will gracefully extend my white flag of surrender to that mentality, that a season can be marked by milestones instead of days on a calendar, while I straddle the seasons, try to push summer to extend just a bit farther.
It’s not hard to do when a plate of this Roasted Ratatouille is staring back at you, loaded with late summer tomatoes softened to a deeply flavorful mass, chunks of hearty zucchini and eggplants so perfectly round and unblemished that they look false and plastic, yet yield to a tender flesh so delicious it makes your eyes roll back. I can have my face in Summer, my cheeks enjoying the warmth of the days, while my head and heart charge towards Fall, cool air, a warm humming oven and a comforting meal when the air chills and sweatshirts come out.
This dish, once again as is the case with so many in my adult years, was not something I’ve loved forever, and maybe that’s part of it’s appeal. My Mom used to make Ratatouille when I was young, and my sisters ate it but it always turned me off completely. That which held ruby red tomato and a vegetable with the word ‘egg’ in it just sounded like it would be horrible. I was a picky child mostly due to texture issues, as I have learned; foods like mushrooms, tomato, squashes of all kinds and especially eggplant (an egg? a plant?) are now foods that sweep themselves across my plate on a regular basis, bursting with flavor when once they would make me shudder. I’m so glad to have grown up to learn of their wonder.
Roasting vegetables is quite possibly my most favorite way to eat them, except for right off the vine. With an enormous bounty of fresh from the Farmers Market zucchini and onions, and the aforementioned eggplants, along with the fattest and juiciest Black Krim heirloom tomatoes to come out of my tiny postage stamp garden, this dish was so loaded with flavor that it made my eyes water in joy. Tomato flavor intensified from the heat of the oven, while the eggplant and zucchini became tender-crisp and then just to make it more interesting, I mix everything together and let it sit overnight in the fridge, just to tease a bit more flavor out, a deeper marriage of September’s taste of the vine. The bowl needed nothing else; no salt or pepper, no added oil or seasoning. Topped with the amazing find of crisp strips of chive thrown on top of the vegetables on a whim, it was a dish that slowly spread a Cheshire grin over my face with each bite.
What a personality too. There’s no stodginess involved here, no set way to consume such a meal; we ate this mixed with pearl couscous (because I am, truly, having a love affair with those tiny grains of pasta) and we ate it atop heady and aromatic polenta studded with corn kernels and flecks of fresh herbs. It would be just at home too, stuffed inside a crisp and warm baguette, layered with provolone cheese for an incredible, messy delicious sandwich. Serve it on rice, or with a simple risotto. Warm it slightly and place it on garlicky crostini for a hearty appetizer or light meal. Or toss it, chilled, with greens and a shower of fresh grated asiago cheese for a salad unlike any other. Mix it with pasta, please; make sure you add a good turn of hard cheese. And if you find yourself late at night, in the kitchen with a fork in hand, a few dips in to the bowl while no one is watching is ok too.
And are you like every other gardener in the state- a pile of chives growing in your garden that you don’t know what to do with? I foolishly planted chives many years ago, which went to seed without me doing anything about it (big, BIG mistake) and now, well now I am fighting off chives with a blowtorch practically, and did you know that if you pluck them they just grow faster? Neither did I, but I’m learning that the hard way. Another thing I learned about chives is that you can blast them to kingdom come with Round-Up, but the little buggers just come back, shiny green and taunting. I’ve learned to hate chives, but a handful of them tossed atop these roasting vegetables made for a crispy and delicious garnish that just might make me a bit softer towards this evil relentless herb. Surprise awaits in the strangest places, doesn’t it?
Roasted Ratatouille with Crispy Chives
2-3 medium tomatoes
1 large eggplant
3-4 small zucchini or yellow squash (2 if they’re larger)
1 large red onion
3 garlic cloves
A generous handful of fresh chives
Olive oil, sea salt and fresh ground pepper
Preheat your oven to 400°. Slice the tomatoes into quarters and place on a baking sheet. Drizzle with about a tablespoon of good olive oil, sprinkle with a bit of salt and a few grinds of fresh pepper. Place pan in hot oven and roast, watching carefully, until the tomatoes begin to soften and the skins wrinkle. You want them to retain much of their shape, but release some of their luscious juices. I don’t roast them for more than 10-15 minutes at that temp. Remove the pan and allow them to cool, then slip the skins off.
Dice the zucchini and eggplant, slice the onion and crush the garlic, placing all of these on two baking sheets. Drizzle with a bit of olive oil, add salt and pepper and roast until the vegetables begin to soften, about 15 minutes. Stir carefully, then return pan to oven for about 10 more minutes. Scatter chives over the top of the vegetables, then roast about 10 minutes more, or until the chives are crisp and toasty, but not black and charred. Remove pans and allow vegetables to cool.
In a large bowl, combine tomato (with any juice from the roasting pan), eggplant, zucchini, onion, garlic and about a third of the crispy chives, reserving the rest for garnish. Gently mix together (I like to use my hands to avoid breaking everything down), taste and season with more salt and pepper if desired. The ratatouille can be eaten as is, warm or at room temp. For deeper flavor, chill the mixture overnight, and allow to warm to room temp the next day before serving.