Cheap Eats: Baked-Egg Ratatouille

by Dan Nosowitz

Here at The Billfold, we love cheap and easy recipes. Here’s one for ratatouille by Dan Nosowitz.

I’m giving away a bit of a trade secret here, and probably going to have at least one awkward conversation sometime in the future with a girl who over-Googles me and stumbles upon this, but: This is a great date recipe (or any-time recipe), and I am a good guy, so I am going to share it. I have literally made out with plural girls (more than one! Less than three, full disclosure) after cooking this dish.

So this is a baked-egg ratatouille. It’s flexible, cheap, easy and healthy, and it accomplishes the goal of looking real professional in a rustic sort of way while actually being way less trouble to compose on a plate than a regular dish.

It’s best made in the summer, when farmers markets and friends’ gardens are overflowing with summer squash, and, like I said, it is best made for someone you intend to make out with. It’s a perfect date dish: filling but not heavy, impressive, but cheap and easy to make, and summery, communal, and casual — there’s a lot of reaching and sharing and helping and breaking of ice.

It also pairs well with wine and beer, which you should be drinking, because it’s summer and you’re about to make out with someone. Step one is to please drink wine or beer or whiskey throughout the entire cooking process.

Ingredients:
Note: There are no measurements here, because mostly I tend to cook with what I have, rather than shopping for two cups of diced eggplant or whatever. That’s weird! Just add however much you like, and adjust it until it tastes right. Love garlic? Add a ton of garlic. Hate zucchini? Use some other squash. This is a very flexible recipe! I tend to do around a 3:3:2 ratio of eggplant to summer squash to tomato, if that helps.

– eggplant (any type; I like to go for weirder ones, like the little round Thai ones or the racist all-white ones, because why not?)
– summer squash, like zucchini, or thin-necked yellow squash, or spherical light green squash, or anything else the farmers market marks as summer squash
– tomatoes (you can go cheapish here — we’re going to be cooking them down a lot, so heirlooms would be kind of a waste. On the other hand, this is also one of the very few instances where canned tomatoes will not really work)
– garlic
– some kind of onion (shallots and red onions are my favorites. Leeks would also work)
– eggs (since you’re already at the farmers’ market, with your canvas tote and bike helmet and attitude in hand, grab some nice eggs! They taste better and are probably more ethical, or something)
– cheese (hard cheeses are best here. Parmesan, pecorino, asiago — something salty and not too rich)
– sprig or two of thyme
– one or two bay leaves
– olive oil/salt/pepper, duh
– other flavorings if you want! I am usually all about adding every possible spice and herb that seems like it wouldn’t be gross, but this recipe I think is best kept simple. Still, here are some possible additions: oregano, parsley, red pepper flakes, sriracha, smoked paprika, a little bit of pesto of any sort (I have snootily tried it with parsley-walnut pesto and found it delicious), or even a mild curry powder would be tasty. If you demand meat, diced sausage works well, as long as you don’t have like a crazy smoky oily one — I have used Goya’s tiny chorizos, which are tasty and cost about $2.50 for four, to good effect.
– good bread. Sourdough is best, because sourdough is always best, but pretty much any bread, pita, naan, or other flatbread would work. Tortillas work okay but are kind of weird, like you’re making a Provençal taco.

Equipment:
– a good knife, because you deserve to have a good knife
– cutting board
– serrated knife to avoid tomato-smushing
– EITHER: a medium-sized cast-iron pan (preferable) or any pan + a smallish deep-walled metal baking vessel (still fine, really). Size is important — you want it to just fit all of your vegetables, coming up maybe halfway to the top of the rim of the pan, edge to edge.

Prep:
Cut your eggplant and summer squash into small cubes. Like, a centimeter square or thereabouts. Make them however big you want, I’m not the boss of you! Dice your tomato with your serrated knife. Marvel at how much easier it is to cut tomatoes with a serrated knife, then also remember that bread and tomatoes are the only items that should be cut with a serrated knife. Chop your garlic, dice your onion. (Yes. Chop the garlic. Do not mince it real tiny. Like, each clove should yield maybe eight to twelve pieces.) Put these items in bowls. This will make your actual cooking process really easy! Note: I have never done this in my life. You can just chop the summer squash, garlic, onion, and tomatoes while the eggplant cooks.

Get your pan on the stove. Turn on the stove to just below medium. Put some oil in it.

Here’s the thing about eggplant that people mostly don’t know, unless they are completely untrained amateur cooks who watch way too much Top Chef: You have to cook the shit out of it. The texture of the eggplant should be buttery smooth in the middle, not spongy or firm at all. This takes FOREVER. But it’s worth it! So throw the eggplant in the pan first. Make sure the pan’s hot before you do — the eggplant should sizzle when you throw it in. After a couple minutes, turn the heat down to medium-low.

Eggplant will soak up lots of oil on its long, strange journey to being delicious. You’ll have to add some more to the pan to keep it from getting too dry and sticking. Toss the eggplant sparingly — don’t stand in front of the stove and bat it around every twelve seconds like a kitten with a pair of expensive earbuds. Have some god damn patience. It’s going to take like a half hour, minimum, plus the more you smack it with your spatula, the more it’s going to fall apart.

When the eggplant is toasty on the outside and buttery on the inside, remove it from the pan. (Some people, Julia Child among them, say ratatouille should be made with each individual vegetable cooked separately. I don’t do that because 1) I am not a segregationist and 2) it takes fucking forever that way.) Go ahead and toss in the garlic and onion. (You chopped the garlic because garlic is not any mere flavoring, no! Chopping it a little bigger means it won’t burn or get lost in the stew.) When the onions are mostly translucent, throw in the squash. Turn the heat up a bit and let that stuff get a little browned, then throw in the tomatoes, thyme, bay leaves, and other spices, if you insisted on using other spices, and turn the heat back down to medium-low. Let all that cook down for, like, awhile. You want the squash to still have some texture, so don’t cook it too long. When the vegetables are cooked to your preferred level of doneness, remove the thyme and bay leaves and throw the eggplant back in. Mix it all up, and season with salt and pepper. If it’s looking a little soupy, not to worry–that just means you had some real juicy tomatoes or some watery-ass zucchini or something. Drain off the excess liquid–you can throw that in another pan, reduce it a bit, and then pour it back over the ratatouille.

Turn off the heat, and then turn on your broiler. I know! When do you ever get to use the broiler! If you’re using a cast-iron pan, skip the rest of this paragraph. If you’re using a nonstick pan, first of all, nonstick is just fine, I am not a snob, but you should probably acquire a cast-iron pan. Also, take your ratatouille and dump it all into your baking vessel.

Take a spoon or a ladle or spatula or your own heat-resistant fist and make a few little hollows in the ratatouille. These should be well-spaced — there should be a good few inches between hollows. I usually have two or three eggs in an eight-inch pan. The hollows should not go all the way through the ratatouille to show the bottom of the pan — there should be a thin layer of ratatouille on the bottom. Crack your eggs carefully into these hollows, one per, making sure not to break the yolk. DO NOT BREAK THE YOLK. THE YOLK IS EVERYTHING. Then grate your cheese liberally over the top, though don’t grate it right on the yolk itself. You want there to be a pretty fair cheese-crust on this thing, because up until now it’s just been vegetables and you don’t want your Person of Romantic Interest to think that’s all you eat. Not like a pizza-level amount of cheese, but, you know, a buncha cheese.

Make sure the broiler’s all up to heat, then slide your pan/baking vessel under it. This is the hardest part of this whole dish: You need it to be in there long enough for the cheese to brown and the egg whites to set, but not so long that the egg yolks cook at all. Check it, like, once a minute. It shouldn’t take longer than three or four minutes under the broiler. If you see the top of the egg yolk start to cook, it might mean your ratatouille is too high and thus too close to the burner. If you see that, remove it immediately, turn the oven down to about 400, and stick the pan in the oven until done.

To test, stab your knife into the egg whites and move the top of the whites (which will cook in seconds) aside to peek at what’s underneath. If it’s a lot of clear liquid, stick it back in. If it’s kind of pudding-y wet-looking mostly opaque white with maybe a tiny bit of clear liquid, it’s done. If it’s hard and fully opaque and white, you fucked up. The eggs are going to continue to cook even when out of the broiler because they are nestled in a delicious hot pan of produce, so you’re basically looking for slightly undercooked when you slide it out.

Take your pan or baking vessel and stick it on some kind of nice-looking, heat-proof plate or sheet or towel or a bunch of oven mitts in a pinch. Deposit it in the middle of the table. Take your loaf of bread or flatbread and put it on a cutting board. Slice half of the loaf of bread, if you’re using bread, and carry the cutting board/bread/knife to the table as well. Give you and your very lucky Person of Romantic Interest a small plate and a fork. Tell your Person of Romantic Interest that you understand that they want to make out right now, but that the eggs are still cooking and it is important to eat this while it’s still at peak tastiness. Take your fork and break all of the yolks. If you’ve done this right, the yolks should ooze out delicious saucy yolk. Mix that all up. Eat with bread.

Final step: Take your Person of Romantic Interest to Makouttown.

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Dan Nosowitz lives in Brooklyn and writes words for money, mostly at Popular Science. He has serious opinions about fruit, and previously wrote about his apartment in Montreal.

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