Americans seem attached to this idea of the “Family Dinner” as the antidote for personal and societal evils and as essential for ensuring their children's success in school. Yet most parents offer reasonable enough excuses that they cannot consistently prepare and enjoy the elusive kinfolk meal together as a family; work obligations, kid's school and extracurricular activities, and planning conflicts among other things thwarting the aspirational repast. Studies reveal that the busy lives of family members outside the home are not the only culprit in the saga of the American family dinner. It seems that even when everyone is home, having dinner together remains a challenge in many households. Why is that?
My Mom sure had her challenges, raising five kids throughout the seventies and into the eighties, not the least of which was feeding the herd. Yet for most of those years, having all the kids at the table wasn’t among her struggles. Mom made the one meal and that was it. There was no accommodating of finicky eaters (my sister became adept at detecting onions and clandestinely spitting them into her napkin), no freezer full of polychromatic packages of microwaveable meals for the child-on-the-go and carryout/take-away was a very rare ‘special occasion’ treat. Don’t even get me going on why you don’t regularly take five kids out to a restaurant! You missed dinner, you didn’t eat, unless you could make your way with reheating leftovers – which, with four boys, leftovers were NOT usually an option.
Of the dishes Mom prepared, most of my favorites were the back-of-the-soup can recipes. These, typically one-pot/pan dishes, also informed my first intrigue around global cuisine (beyond our go-to Mexican and Chinese take-away), being transported to such exotic cuisines and destinations like Central Europe (courtesy of Campbell’s!) via Paprika Chicken, and to Sweden by way of creamy mushroom sauced pork chops. And always, the obligatory (childhood favorite) and oh-so Americana, tuna crunch casserole. The crunch coming from potato chips crumbled on top - the perfect crispy, salty complement to the creamy, savory comfort of the casserole.
As evidenced through social media proliferations, our pandemic pantries seem to provide myriad inspiration, creativity and sustenance as we struggle yet thrive, thanks to those humble, unsung and often neglected and dusty, shelf-stable crusaders. Here in the Snooty French fallout shelter, you won’t find the ubiquitous red-and-white soup cans but there are beans-a-plenty along with rice, grains, pasta, tinned tomatoes, tuna in oil, and coconut milk. As it is MY pantry, there are also some slightly more esoteric (to some) staples like harissa, French lentils (bien sûr), three different grinds of cornmeal (WTF?), Calabrian chilis, dried porcini, anchovies, and copious amounts of extra-virgin olive oil.
Although it’s just me and Barry, like many of you, I have been preparing meals three times a day the past several months. Luckily, my work as a recipe developer allows for some of my vocation (work that I am thankfully still able to get) to feed us - thus getting work and dinner done simultaneously. Now, smack dab in summer’s bounty I find it easy to be overwhelmed with possibilities and suddenly, with arm-loads of tomatoes that we just can’t say no to at the farmers market, and smooth, shiny ebonized purple eggplants and a rainbow of peppers catch my eye. Then, zucchini, summer squash and the strong, sweet, pungent bunches of basil - what is one to do but provide a happy home to them all!
Back home and channeling Mom’s one-pot or pan meal approach, the bounty gets cut up and tossed onto sheet pans with glugs of that before mentioned abundant olive oil and seasoning, then is popped into a hot oven. Alas, the humble ratatouille, sans the tedious steps of the classic stove-top preparation, comes together easily and quickly, filling our home with the aromas of Provence via Nor-Cal. This delicious tray-bake version, which doubles easily so you can feed ALL of your people, is finished with a piquant vinaigrette, yields enough for a few meals (you’re welcome!) and is easily completed (stretched) when tossed with or onto pasta, polenta, quinoa, farro, salad greens or even sandwiched onto ciabatta or a baguette, layered with crumbly chévre or feta cheese. Oh, I’d better check and make sure that there’s enough rosè chilled and then give Mom a call.
(Makes approximately 1 1/2 quarts/@ 2 lbs.)
1 pound eggplant, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes
1 large orange or yellow pepper, cut into 3/4-inch pieces
1 medium zucchini or summer squash, cut into 3/4-inch pieces
1 large shallot, cut into 1/4-inch thick slices
4 garlic cloves, smashed with side of knife
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 1/2 teaspoons herbs de Provence (or Italian herb blend)
Kosher salt* and freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tsp harissa paste
1/4 cup packed fresh basil leaves
Preheat oven to 450°F (230°C). Line a rimmed baking sheet pan with parchment paper or aluminum foil.
Directly on the prepared sheet pan, combine the eggplant, tomatoes, pepper, zucchini, shallot, and garlic. Drizzle the vegetables with 1/4 cup of the EVOO, herbs de Provence, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and 3/4 teaspoon pepper. Toss well to combine and coat the vegetables.
Place in the hot oven and roast until the vegetables are caramelized, and meltingly tender and the tomatoes are bursting, 35 to 40 minutes, tossing a few times during cooking.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine the remaining 1/4 cup EVOO with the red wine vinegar, and harissa, season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and whisk well to combine.
When the vegetables are done, drizzle the vinaigrette over the ratatouille, taste for seasoning. Serve ratatouille with the fresh basil hand torn and scattered over the top.
Note – Serve ratatouille as a side to your favorite protein, or over polenta, pasta, rice, lentils, quinoa, farro, or tuck it into a sandwich or serve over greens.
*Diamond Crystal kosher salt is used in Snooty French recipe development