I have a leetle while longer on my Draconian, post-surgery, low-fat diet, although I am going to cheat. Yeah, you heard me. I’m going cut it short by a [mere!] couple of days because the T. family leaves for a few sunny days in Mexico on Saturday. I am not going to forgo guacamole on a Mexican vacation–nope, nope, not going to happen!
In my defense, I’ve been such a good girl on my regime that I deserve a little slack. I have dearly missed cheese and my beloved bacon, but I did it. There were a couple of sad moments–like forsaking my share in Family Pizza Nite and waving my pork product goodbye at Sunday breakfast. And I had to sacrifice meals out, because who knows what fatty business is hiding in a restaurant meal? That stunk a bit, but I’m an adult, right? Adults can do this sacrifice stuff.
Thus, I cooked a lot this past month. Like all the time.
One of the first things I made when I started this low-fat business was a big batch of ratatouille. Whenever I make ratatouille, I have to smile, because it reminds me of Mama. Mama and I love ratatouille so much that we’d almost eat ourselves sick on it during the summer months. We’d spend afternoons chopping and dicing and bathing all of those gorgeous summer vegetables in fruity, beautiful olive oil. The result was heavenly, and we’d pile our plates full, adorned only by hefty slices of rustic country bread to sop up the juices. In my opinion, it’s the perfect summer repast.
Only problem this time was…it’s not summer. Tomatoes and zucchini and eggplant aren’t at their zenith right now, not by a long shot. The old tried-and-true preparation of ratatouille wasn’t going to cut it, because that old-school method requires peak-perfect produce. But dammit, I wanted my ratatouille! Life’s hard enough right now; don’t make me sacrifice my ratatouille craving, universe! You’ve snatched my cheese, absconded with my bacon and pilfered my butter–don’t mess with me on the ratatouille.
The solution to my dilemma? The slow cooker. I’d never thought of making ratatouille in the slow cooker because, to be honest, it goes against all of the conventional [French] wisdom about what a ratatouille should be. Made in the classic French fashion, each vegetable is prepared separately, with lots of olive oil and plenty of tender care–only at the very end of preparation are the vegetables allowed to play together in the finished ratatouille. The idea is that if you prepare it that way, each vegetable retains its own integrity.
How like the French–take what is seemingly a simple vegetable dish and gussy it up with lots of fanfare and time-intensive preparation. Thanks guys!
I must admit, that French version of ratatouille is stellar. It’s also really heavy in the olive oil department, since you’re sauteeing each batch of vegetables individually. Most classic preparations use at least a half-cup of olive oil and up to almost a full cup in some recipes I’ve seen. That’s a lot of olive oil.
And olive oil, while a “healthy” fat, is still fat. Which is something I’m not supposed to be eating much of at the moment.
That’s the beauty of this slow cooker version. It’s not fussy, it’s not fancy, and it uses just a fraction of the usual measures of olive oil. A fraction!
Also, because those vegetables spend quite some time in the cooker getting to know each other, the flavors meld together in a way that intensifies them–which is a good thing when you’re working with less than perfect vegetables. The long cooking time improves those lackluster winter specimens into something really quite lovely.
The first few platefuls of slow-cooker ratatouille I consumed in the fashion of my youth–accompanied only by a bare sprinkling of Parmiggiano-Reggiano cheese and a few fat slabs of toasted bread. It was pure nostalgia and I downed it with delight.
A couple of days later, though, I was particularly hungry and cranky and needed something a little more substantial for supper. I warmed up some leftover roasted potatoes from the day before, plopped them next to the ratatouille and then gilded the lily with a perfect, pristine fried egg. Oh-ho! That was a revelation. If you think a meal of ratatouille sounds boring, try it with the crispy potatoes and the egg. There’s nothing at all austere about that meal, I promise.
I can’t commit to using the slow cooker exclusively for my ratatouille–I imagine I’ll revert back to the classic version come summertime, but this preparation is delicious, too. It’s perfectly suited for lazy days, which I like, and it’s forgiving, which is definitely a bonus. It’s good on the waistline as well, and since I’ll be slithering into a swimsuit in a matter of days, I was grateful for that.
I may even sneak in another batch of this before we leave for warm beaches and cool water. It’ll make that first bowl of guacamole taste that much better, don’t you think?
Slow Cooker Ratatouille
slightly adapted from Ellie Krieger
1 pound thin, small Japanese eggplants*, diced into 3/4-inch pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
5 medium Roma tomatoes (about 1 pound) cut in large dice
2 medium zucchini, cut into 3/4-inch pieces
1 green, 1 red and 1 yellow/orange bell pepper, each cut into large dice
1 large onion, cut into half-moons
2 cups button mushrooms, halved
4 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon hot pepper flakes (optional)
fresh basil leaves, sliced
freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Dice the eggplant, zucchini, peppers and onion and place in the slow cooker. Whisk the 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, olive oil and tomato paste together in a small bowl. Pour over the vegetables and toss. Add the garlic, thyme, red pepper flakes (if using) and bay leaf and stir. Cover and cook on low heat for 2 hours.
After two hours, remove the lid and stir in mushrooms. Replace lid and cook on low 2 more hours.
Uncover the pot and cook without a cover on low for 30 minutes to 1 hour more to allow excess liquid to cook down.
Adjust for seasoning. Top with fresh basil and grated Parmesan.
*Japanese eggplants are thinner and smaller and much less bitter than traditional eggplant. If you cannot find the Japanese version, use regular, in the same amount called for. However, you will need to address the bitterness issue. It’s easy to fix: place the sliced eggplant in a colander and sprinkle it generously with salt. Let it sit for 30 minutes and then rinse the salt off the eggplant, pat it dry and proceed accordingly. Viola! Bitterness is gone.