Ratatouille for In-Between Days

March and April are rough months for cooks. The weather begins to warm, enticing one's taste buds for fresh fare, but nothing is ready for harvest yet, and likely won't be until late May or early June.

Ratatouille works well in times like these. The recipe consists mainly of zucchini and onions, and although squashes (such as zucchini) are ideally eaten in late summer and through most of autumn, the kind you can get year-round from greenhouses are just fine. Ratatouille is flexible and can bend toward either summer or winter, making it an ideal side dish in March.

My mother used to make this side dish often when I was young because zucchini grows in abundance on Long Island due to the sandy soil and hot summers. It’s cheap and plentiful.

My mother made a few different versions of ratatouille: sometimes using half yellow squash and half zucchini, sometimes with garlic powder, sometimes with lemon or lemon pepper and no tomatoes, sometimes with sliced mushrooms. You can easily play with this recipe (capers and a splash of white wine would be nice; grilled eggplant would work; red and yellow peppers; fresh diced tomatoes; a little vegetable broth in the bottom of the pan if it begins to burn.

Really, it's nothing more than sautéed vegetables that begin to steam in their own juices. In fact it’s a very juicy dish, which makes it all the more warm and comforting in the cooler months with cheese, but equally wonderful when served closer to room temperature on warm days, with a spritz of lemon and a handful of fresh parsley to brighten the flavors.

This is a step-by-step "for dummies" version of the recipe, rather than my usual short hand style, but I like it because it's fool proof and unintimidating to new cooks.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 large onion, sliced into thin half moons
2 medium to large zucchini, sliced into 1/2-inch thick circles
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 clove garlic, chopped
salt and pepper
Parmaggiano Regianno or lemon and parsley to garnish

Warm a large skillet over a low flame. Add the olive oil and onions. Let the onions sweat out their juices a little before adding the zucchini. From this step on, how you cook the ratatouille depends on how you prefer it. If you continue to cook on a low flame, cover the pan and leave it alone, and the dish will be very juicy with the vegetables falling apart slightly. If you turn up the heat to medium-high, the zucchini and onions will develop a golden crust -- but if you prefer to cook at the higher temperature, you will need to toss the ingredients every few minutes to minimize too much browning.

When the vegetables are softer, create a hot spot in the bottom of the pan by clearing a little room -- enough to drop in the 2 tablespoons of tomato paste. Add the tomato paste, and leave the pan alone for at least two minutes so the paste can warm up and develop its flavors a little.

Next, toss everything together and add the garlic and cook one minute more. Season with salt and pepper. The ratatouille is ready when the vegetables are evenly coated with tomato paste. Garnish with either fresh lemon juice and parsley or grated hard cheese, such as Parmaggiano Regianno.