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   This past weekend, there was much to celebrate, but mostly  we celebrated the arrival of the first, homegrown tomatoes on the table. 

   On Saturday night, a friend came to dinner proudly bearing his first two tomatoes of the season. We sliced the Early Girls into quarters, salted them, bumped them against each other in a makeshift toast, and popped them into our mouths.  Delish.

   On Sunday morning, another friend invited me to  an all-local  brunch  she made with eggs, sausage, cheese and produce,  all  from the farmers market or  her own garden. She served her favorite tomato salad, a simple concoction of  homegrown Walla Walla onions and heirloom tomatoes, with a splash of balsamic and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. It was divine.

     One of my favorite dishes to make this time of year is Ratatouille, an eggplant casserole dotted with tomatoes, onions, peppers and zucchini  from to garden.  My recipe is in my head, and it never comes out the same. This  recipe was excerpted from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Child, reprinted with permission from the publisher Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

    “Ratatouille perfumes the kitchen with the essence of Provence and is certainly one of the great Mediterranean dishes,” Child writes. “A really good ratatouille is not one of the quicker dishes to make, as each element is cooked separately before it is arranged in the casserole to partake of a brief, communal simmer. This recipe is the only one we know of which produces a ratatouille in which each vegetable retains its own shape and character.”

Ratatouille

For 6 to 8 people

 1 pound eggplant

1 pound zucchini

1 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons olive oil, more of needed

½ pound thinly sliced yellow onions

2 (about 1 cup) sliced bell peppers

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil, if necessary

2 cloves mashed garlic

Salt and pepper to taste

1 pound firm, ripe, red tomatoes, peeled, seeded and juiced

Salt and pepper

3 tablespoons minced parsley

Salt and pepper

Peel the eggplant and cut into lengthwise slices 1/8-inch thick, about 3 inches long, and 1-inch wide. Scrub the zucchini, slice off the two ends, and cut the zucchini into slices about the same size as the eggplant slices. Place the vegetables in a  bowl and toss with the salt. Let stand for 30 minutes. Drain. Dry each slice in a towel.

One layer at a time, sauté the eggplant in a 10-inch enameled skillet, and then the zucchini in hot olive oil for about a minute on each side to brown very lightly. Remove to a side dish.

In the same skillet, cook the onions and peppers slowly in olive oil for about 10 minutes, or until tender but not browned. Stir in the garlic and season to taste.

Slice the tomato pulp into 3/8-inch strips. Lay them over the onions and peppers. Season with salt and pepper. Cover the skillet and cook over low heat for 5 minutes, or until tomatoes have begun to render their juice. Uncover, baste the tomatoes with the juices, raise heat and boil for several minutes, until juice has almost entirely evaporated.

Place a third of the tomato mixture in the bottom of a 2 ½ -quarte fireproof casserole and sprinkle over it 1 tablespoon of parsley. Arrange half of the eggplant and zucchini on top, then half the remaining tomatoes and parsley. Put in the rest of the eggplant and zucchini, and finish with the remaining tomatoes and parsley.

Cover the casserole and simmer over low heat for 10 minutes. Uncover, tip casserole and baste with the rendered juices. Correct seasoning, if necessary. Raise the heat slightly and cook, uncovered, for about 15 minutes more, basting several times, until juices have evaporated, leaving a spoonful or two of flavored olive oil. Be careful of your heat; do not let the vegetables scorch in the bottom of the casserole. Set aside uncovered. Reheat slowly at serving time, or serve cold.

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