Ever since I watched Ratatouille on my flight over to Frankfurt, and then watched it again on my flight home, I have been meaning to prepare the classic French Provencal stewed vegetable dish. This charming animated film about a young French country rat with an extraordinary palate, who became the culinary mastermind of a Parisian restaurant, put the traditional peasant’s meal back on the gastronomic map. Although I had heard of ratatouille, I had never tried it, and I knew little more about the dish other than the fact that it involves eggplant and is frequently misspelled.
The word Ratatouille comes from the French term touiller, which means "to toss food." Because ratatouille is easy to make and requires little more than fresh vegetables, it started out as a dish for farmers and peasants. Today, it is served as both a side dish and a meal, usually with a loaf of warm bread for mopping up every last bit. Some chefs even choose to treat it as a filling for crepes or omelettes, or as a topping for bruschetta. Tomatoes are a key ingredient, as are zucchini, onions, garlic, peppers, and aubergine or eggplant.
I am a big fan of roasting vegetables, and I will often roast a large batch of whatever is in season, tossed with olive oil and herbs, to keep in the refrigerator for a healthy side dish or snack. Roasting allows the vegetables to caramelize a bit, resulting in a more robust flavor, and it worked very well for my first attempt at Ratatouille. I opted to serve it with a lightly seasoned tilapia fillet for a healthy dinner, but it would be just as delicious on its own. Who would have thought that a beret-wearing rodent would earn a place on my list of culinary influences? Here are a few tips for this roasted ratatouille repast:
- If you don’t have fresh thyme on hand, then substitute 2 teaspoons dried thyme for the 2 tablespoons fresh.
- Not a tilapia fan? This recipe would work well with other types of fish too, such as halibut, monkfish, sea bass, snapper, or black cod. Be certain to adjust the baking time to ensure that the fish is cooked through.
- The ratatouille can also be prepared on its own and served as a side dish to grilled chicken, steak, etc. Add a 1/4-teaspoons of crushed red pepper flakes if you like a little extra heat in your food.
- You can use a jar of prepared marinara sauce as a substitute for the crushed tomatoes, but try to use one that is lower in fat and sugar.
Tilapia with Roasted Ratatouille
1 medium zucchini, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 large red or yellow bell pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 yellow onion, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 (14 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
4 tilapia fillets (about 6 ounces each)
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil, plus extra leaves for garnish
2 tablespoons drained capers
Preheat the oven to 450F degrees. Toss the eggplant, zucchini, red pepper, and onion in 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large bowl. Add the thyme, season with salt and pepper, and toss again.
Coat a shallow roasting pan or baking sheet with cooking spray and then arrange the vegetables on the pan. Roast until tender, stirring once, about 25 minutes. Stir in the garlic and crushed tomatoes. Cover loosely with foil and roast for 10 minutes longer.
Remove the pan from the oven and stir in the chopped basil. Rub the tilapia fillets with the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place the fish over the vegetables and cover loosely with foil. Bake until the fish is cooked through and flakes easily with a fork, 10-12 minutes. Top with the basil leaves and capers and serve.