—So, how do you make your ratatouille?

This is the question I ask anytime anyone in France tells me they’re making ratatouille (a vegetable dish from the South of France made with zucchini, eggplant, onions, and tomatoes). No one, I mean no one, seems to make it the same way. The little book of Provençal cooking that I’ve had since I came to France as a teenager gives a recipe for Niçoise ratatouille that calls for cooking each vegetable separately, then simmering them together for 30 minutes till the sauce cooks off…for a total prep time of 2 ½ hours. (Yikes.) At the opposite end of the time-spent-in-the-kitchen spectrum lies the ratatouille I learned to make from a grand-mère (grandmother) in Grenoble during that teenage stint in France. Grand-mère stood over a pot generously slicked with olive oil, cut the vegetables directly into it with a paring knife, starting with onions and ending with tomatoes, gave the whole thing a large shake of dried herbes de Provence, then let everything simmer down until the vegetables were tender but not falling apart.

There are many more examples of ratatouille variations, including my own. Some days, I want that pungent, dried-herb flavor of the grand-mère. Others, I go for subtle with sprigs of fresh herbs—or no herbs at all. While I was dating a Frenchman who hated garlic (I know…how can a Frenchman hate garlic?!), I did without garlic. And every so often, I like to get all fancy and do the finely-diced thing that impresses people so much—though my version doesn’t take 2½ hours. What I’m trying to say is that ratatouille is endlessly versatile and pretty much foolproof. (Unless you use too much fresh chile pepper, as I did once, early in my cooking career. Then it’s inedible.)

The ratatouille recipe here is ultra-rustic—I was channeling my inner grand-mère instead of my inner grand chef. The vegetables are sliced BIG, the herbs are added whole (and will therefore have to be carefully picked out, either by a diligent cook or the diners), and the tomatoes are cut directly over the pot into small chunks so that every single drop of their delicious juice goes into the sauce.

Really Rustic Ratatouille

1 lb. (450 g.) tomatoes
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 medium onion (150 g), quartered and thinly sliced
1 lb. zucchini, halved and sliced ½-inch (1.5 cm) thick
½ lb. (225 g.) eggplant, halved and sliced ½-inch thick
2 cloves garlic, minced (2 tsp.)
sprigs of fresh herbs (I usually use 1 large one of at least 4), such as thyme, oregano, rosemary, marjoram, basil, sage, parsley

Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Cut an X on the bottom (smooth round end) of each tomato, just through the skin. Drop the tomatoes in the boiling water for thirty seconds, then remove with a slotted spoon and allow to cool. Peel the tomatoes with a small knife, and set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onions and a pinch of salt, and sauté 3 to 4 minutes, or until just translucent. Spread the zucchini slices over the onion, sprinkle with salt and pepper, then add the eggplant slices. Cut the tomatoes into small pieces over the pot, and add to the ratatouille Add the garlic and the herbs, and season with salt and pepper. Cover, and reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer 30 to 40 minutes without stirring, or until vegetables are tender, but not mushy. Serve hot or at room temperature. This ratatouille also makes a wonderful omelet or tart filling.