When I opened my CSA box last week, I was giddy with all the late summer produce that greeted me. I pulled out eggplant, squash, tomatoes, peppers, jalapeños, kale, green beans, yellow ones, the visual feast went on and on and immediately ideas began brewing. The first 4 vegetables I pulled out seemed to scream ratatouille to me. Anyone would have heard it and so I had no choice but to comply.
Ratatouille is a typical French dish with many variations. I prefer cooking the vegetables separately so that they have the opportunity to showcase themselves as individuals before joining the party and participating in the synergy that a good ratatouille demands. (I’m glad to have just read that so did Julia Child.) It all comes down to appreciating unique flavors that contribute to a dish.
As a health-supportive chef, an interesting fact about this dish stands out: most of the vegetables in this dish are nightshades. The nightshade family, or Solanaceae, are a mysterious bunch. This family has over 2,000 species of medical, ornamental and poisonous plants including tobacco, belladonna (this is a deadly one), potatoes, goji berries and not to mention the veg (eggplant, tomatoes, peppers) in this ratatouille.
The members of this family are highly suspect when it comes to our joint health. Nightshades are unique in that they are high in alkaloids. Like protein, they contain a significant amount of nitrogen, however unlike protein which builds and repairs tissue, alkaloids are stimulants, hallucinogens, poisonous, and have been known to disrupt the calcium balance in our bodies. If we look at traditional cultures who consume these veg often, we see that they are often accompanied by some form of dairy; cheese, yogurt, cream, etc. Without the excess calcium in dairy, nightshades will absorb the calcium from our bones and deposit it where it doesn’t belong, in our soft tissue ,our joints and in other unwanted places like our arteries. This aggravates inflammation and could make for creaking, cracking, painful joints.
It gets worse. In Food and Healing, Annemarie Colbin mentions “calciphylactic syndrome”, a term coined by Austrian endocrinologist, Hans Selye. This is the “calcification” or deposits of calcium in our soft tissue and “it is involved in arthritis, arteriosclerosis, coronary disease, cerebral sclerosis, kidney stones, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, even some forms of cancer”. Unfortunately it seems that this condition “is possibly the most prevalent physical symptom in modern industrial cultures”.
So, why would you make and eat this delicious and seemingly dangerous dish? For starters, you’re not eating it everyday! Or you shouldn’t be anyway. Secondly, it is paired with Parmigiano Reggiano so you are eating this dish in balance for your body. Lastly, it is a traditional dish and there are many health benefits to all the veg involved. Everything needs to be in moderation and in balance. The key is to always listen to your own body.
We enjoyed this dish 3 ways. The first was over couscous, then over pasta and finally, and this is my all time favorite, over a chunky piece of sourdough toast with a fried egg on top. Trust me on that last one. It is pure gourmet brunch bliss material!
P.S. If you do experience joint pain or suffer from arthritis, you may want to forgo eating any nightshades for a few weeks to see if your condition improves. It’s worth the experiment. (Macrobiotic diet could help here, too.)
1 large eggplant, peeled and cut in 1” dice
1 zucchini, ½” dice
1 yellow squash, ½” dice
1 green bell pepper, ½” dice
1 Spanish onion, diced
3 large cloves garlic, separated and minced
1 28oz. can whole tomatoes or 4 large-ish ripe tomatoes (heirloom would be great), ½”dice and reserve juices
2 T tomato paste
1 t herbs de provence
2 sprigs fresh thyme
Splash of red wine
Sea salt to taste
Fresh ground black pepper
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
2T fresh parsley, finely chopped
*Pre-heat oven to 350°
Place egglplant in a colander and season generously with salt. Let sit for 20min while moisture is withdrawn from eggplant. Rinse and set aside to dry.
In a sauté pan, heat 3T olive oil and add onion, a pinch of sea salt and herbs de Provence. Saute for 5 minutes until just tender and then add 2 cloves of minced garlic and sauté for 3 more minutes. Then add tomato paste and mix well.
Once mixture is blended well and very fragrant, deglaze with a splash of red wine and cook out for 2 minutes. Then, add tomatoes and reserved juices. Let simmer for 15-20min.
Meanwhile, in another sauté pan, heat 3T olive oil and add remaining garlic, eggplant and season with thyme. Stir often and cook until just tender. Remove from pan.
Add zucchini, squash and pepper and another T of olive oil to pan. Season with salt and pepper and sauté for 5-7 minutes, making sure vegetables stay al dente. Remove from pan and add to eggplant.
In a shallow baking dish, add half of tomato sauce and then top with cooked vegetables. Top off with remaining sauce and bake for 20 minutes. This is just enough time to let the flavors blend and to finish off cooking the veg without overcooking them!
Serve over couscous, pasta or enjoy alone with some thick sourdough bread!