I learned the most important lesson about good food on a third grade field trip. I don’t remember anything about the trip itself, only that my parent chaperone was Mrs. Reiman, and that she said the best meal she had ever eaten was the spam she and her husband cooked over a campfire on their honeymoon when they were “just kids.”
At the time, I understood that to be a testament to the power of campfires, which really do make everything taste better. But her statement stuck with me and, over the years, I have realized that Mrs. Reiman was actually explaining an idea so central to the importance of food that I only overlooked it because it has nothing to do with food at all: the measure of a meal is not the quality of ingredients or the skill of preparation, but the setting and company in which you eat it.
Ratatouille is my campfire spam. It is a simple stew made of the vegetables that are ripe at the end of summer, when people are vacationing and otherwise taking advantage of the days before school starts and winter comes. It tastes of sunshine on bare shoulders, lazy weekends at the beach house, trips to the farmers market, al fresco dinner with friends, and the red-purple glow of sunsets after a too-hot day.
The preparation is simple and fast, perfect because no one wants to spend the last days of their summer in the kitchen. The ingredients for this one pot vegan dinner should all be readily available at your local farmers market or grocery store. From August through September, this French vegetable stew is delicious on its own or served with a toasted slice of hearty bread. Made in January with ingredients that were picked green and ripened on a truck that drove 1,000 miles before making it to the super market, Ratatouille would be bland at the very best. I actually would strongly suggest you NOT make Ratatouille except when all of the ingredients can be bought fresh from local farms.
5-7 large tomatoes, cubed
2-3 small summer squash, halved and sliced
1-2 large onions, diced
8-10 cloves garlic, minced or sliced
2-3 small eggplants, chopped
1-2 bell peppers, seeded and chopped
4 tbs extra virgin olive oil plus more for serving.
1 glass of dry red or white wine (optional)
Sauté onions in olive oil with a sprinkle of salt in a large pot over medium high heat until they turn translucent. Add garlic and cook for another minute. Add tomatoes and cook until tomatoes are cooked and the skins begin to separate from the flesh. Add wine, if using, and cook until wine is reduced bay half, about 4 minutes. Add the rest of the vegetables. Cook until they are softened , about 7-10 minutes, depending upon how large you chopped them. Salt and pepper to taste.
Serve in a bowl with a drizzle of olive oil and toast or garlic bread (optional).
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