Spicy Smoky Ratatouille Casserole – An elegant, flavorful recipe for ratatouille with Middle Eastern spices, smoked paprika and mushrooms. Hearty vegan entree.
Ratatouille for Passover… this idea has been knocking around my head for a few weeks now. It started with the desire to create a vegetarian entree for readers who aren’t eating meat during the holiday. I was looking for something unique– natural, homemade food elevated to another level. It needed to feel substantial enough to be served as a main course and special enough for a holiday. For some reason, I kept coming back to ratatouille.
Many of you are familiar with this dish because of the Disney animated film, Ratatouille, in which a loveable rat chef named Remy surprises a restaurant critic with his elegant, layered spin on the simple vegetable casserole:
Ratatouille, as the chef mentions in the clip, is a “peasant dish.” It originated in the Provençal region of southeast France and was often prepared during the summer when farmers had access to an abundance of fresh vegetables. The name comes from the French cooking term “touiller” meaning “to toss.” The basic idea is a tomato base tossed and cooked with lots of vegetables– zucchini, tomatoes, squash, eggplant. Sometimes it’s all thrown together in a pot, other times the vegetables simmer on top of the sauce. The original concept is super simple and very tasty. Still, there is always room to improvise.
Loosely based on a lovely recipe by Bruno Albouze I created a spicy, smoky version of ratatouille with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences. The tomato base includes peppers, shakshuka-style, as well as smoked paprika, fresh herbs and lots of garlic. I added seared mushrooms to the base to give it a more substantial, meaty texture. Vegetables are sliced thin and layered on the top in a fan-like pattern which makes for a pretty presentation on the dinner table. The casserole is topped with olive oil, garlic and herbs, then baked covered in a slow oven and finished uncovered at higher heat. The flavors are given time to develop here; the spices in the sauce permeate the vegetables and the garlic roasts on top. It’s a beautiful dish, visually appealing with layers and layers of flavor.
This dish takes a long time to make (lots of chopping and slicing), but the good news is you can prep pretty much the whole thing in advance. All you’ll need to do is assemble and cook on the day you serve. To make this Passover-friendly and low carb I served it on a bed of cauliflower couscous (it’s not actually couscous for those who are wondering– it’s purely cauliflower blended to cook like couscous). This would also make a very impressive vegetable side. For a more substantial dish, serve over mashed potatoes.
If you’re not observing Passover, you can use any starch you like– real couscous, rice, orzo. Feel free to play around with the basic concept, it’s really a forgiving recipe. Add your favorite spices and herbs, or use the squash or vegetables that you have on hand. It’s a great way to clean out the produce drawer and look like a champion doing it.
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Spicy Smoky Ratatouille Casserole
- 2 lbs vine-ripened tomatoes (roughly chopped)
- 1/2 lb button mushrooms (sliced)
- 2 carrots (minced)
- 2 ribs celery (minced)
- 1 onion (minced)
- 1 yellow bell pepper (roasted and chopped, skin, seeds and stem removed)
- 1 red bell pepper (roasted and roughly chopped, skin, seeds and stem removed)
- 1 anaheim or poblano pepper roasted and roughly chopped, skin, seeds and stem removed
- 1 chile pepper (roasted and roughly chopped, skin, seeds and stem removed)
- 8 basil leaves (minced)
- 1/4 cup olive oil (divided)
- 2 tsp crushed garlic
- 1 tsp salt
- 3/4 tsp smoked paprika
- 1/2 tsp paprika (also known as sweet paprika)
- 1/2 tsp cayenne (if spice sensitive use 1/4 tsp)
- 1/2 tsp oregano
Sliced Vegetable Topping Ingredients
- 4 Roma tomatoes (approx 10 oz, sliced very thin)
- 8 oz zucchini (sliced very thin, about 2)
- 5 oz Japanese eggplant (sliced very thin, about 2)
- 5 oz yellow squash (sliced very thin, about 2)
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tsp crushed garlic
- Salt and pepper
- 1 tsp fresh thyme (chopped)
- 2 tsp fresh chopped basil
- It's important to have your vegetables chopped, sliced and fully prepared before you begin. There are a few different ways to roast the peppers -click here for options. With this dish I usually throw them directly on the burner of my gas stove and let them cook until the skin chars and blisters. With tongs, carefully turn the peppers so that they roast evenly on all sides. The peppers are done roasting when they are soft and starting to collapse.
- Transfer the roasted peppers to a large mixing bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow the peppers to steam for 15 minutes. You can also steam them in a paper bag if you prefer.
- While the peppers are steaming, prepare and chop the rest of your ingredients. The Roma tomatoes, zucchini, Japanese eggplant and yellow squash should be sliced very thin, about 1/16 in thickness. This is best done with a sharp serrated knife or a mandoline. It does take a bit of time, but the result is totally worth it.
- Once your peppers have finished steaming, peel off the skin and remove the seeds and ribs under cool running water. Roughly chop the peeled peppers and set aside.
- In a food processor, combine the chopped vine-ripened tomatoes, chopped peppers, basil, 2 tsp crushed garlic, salt, smoked paprika, cayenne, paprika and oregano and pulse until you have a rough puree with texture. Taste the mixture; add additional spices and salt to taste, if desired. Note that the flavors will develop more during cooking-- don't overdo the spice, you'll taste it more when the dish is completely cooked.
- Heat 2 tbsp of olive oil in a sauteuse pan or heavy bottomed skillet over medium high until hot. Spread out the sliced mushrooms in a single layer in the pan. Let them stand without stirring for 2 minutes until they are golden brown on the bottom. Begin stirring the mushrooms; continue stirring for another 2-3 minutes till they are nicely browned throughout. Remove mushrooms from the skillet and set aside.
- Add the remaining 2 tbsp of the olive oil to the pan and sauté the minced onions, carrots and celery, scraping up any brown bits as you stir. Cook until the largest pieces of carrot and celery are soft and the onions are caramelized.
- Add the mushrooms back to the pan along with the tomato mixture and stir to combine. Bring to a simmer, then turn off the heat.
- Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Start to layer on the sliced vegetables by first overlapping them in a circle around the outer edge. Layer them close to each other; don't worry, you should have plenty of veggies to cover the whole surface.
- Continue the same pattern until all of the sliced vegetables have been used. If you have extra vegetables you may want to double the layer in the center circle.
- In a small bowl, combine 2 tbsp of olive oil with 1 tsp crushed garlic, salt and pepper. Mix well and drizzle over the top of the sliced vegetables. Sprinkle the top lightly with salt and pepper, then sprinkle the fresh thyme over the top of the dish.
- Cover the pan with a lid or a layer of parchment paper. Bake for 90 minutes. Remove the the lid or parchment and increase the heat to 350 degrees F. Cook for an additional 45 minutes. Garnish with fresh basil. Serve hot over cauliflower couscous, mashed potatoes or your favorite starch.
- This dish takes a long time to prep, but the good news is you can prepare pretty much the whole thing up to 2 days in advance. Slice the vegetables (a mandolin will speed up this process) and place them into plastic zipper bags. Roast the peppers and make the tomato-pepper sauce, then place in a sealed Tupperware. Mix the olive oil and garlic mixture and chop any herbs for garnish. Refrigerate all of the ingredients. That way, all you'll need to do is assemble and cook on the day you serve. You may want to extend the baking time at 300 degrees by 10-15 minutes if the sauce is cold when it goes into the oven. I don't recommend freezing this dish, as the vegetables will become very mushy when reheated.
- If you aren't worried about keeping this dish dairy free/vegan, feel free to sprinkle on some grated parmesan for an even more delicious treat. And if you aren't worried about keeping it gluten free or kosher for Passover, serve it with challah or freshly baked brioche-- you can use the bread to soak up all the yummy juices from the pan!