Cooking for others is a fulfilling hobby and career for me, but at times it presents something of a challenge. When making a dish for a group of people, more times than not some in the group have food allergies or aversions that I have to consider. This is especially true nowadays when everyone has some form of food intolerance — I’ve even seen folks with just about all of them.
So when I'm hosting a group of guests, be it at work or home, there’s one dish that can please just about anyone with any diet and is great for any time of the year: ratatouille (rat-a-TOO-ee) polenta “pot pie.”
Ratatouille (no, not the Pixar movie starring an animated French rat) is a classic, vegetable-based dish that hails from southern France — Provence, to be exact. It serves as a main or side dish containing tomatoes, garlic, onion, zucchini, eggplant, and herbs like basil and thyme.
Giving a healthy twist to the standard American pot pie, I like to use tomatoey ratatouille as the filling and, instead of pastry, top it with piping hot polenta (cooked cornmeal) and bake it off in the oven so the polenta firms up to become the crust topping.
What makes it a great dish for a crowd with varied diets is that it’s made up of healthy veggies and can be made vegan or vegetarian, or you can sauté up some chopped or ground meat to add protein. And being that eggplant and zucchini are fairly easy to find throughout the year at the grocery store, this quick dinner can be made for any season. (Substitute winter squash if need be in the fall or winter.)
Ratatouille and Polenta Pot Pies
Adapted from The Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook. Makes 4 servings.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
To make the polenta, bring water and a large pinch of salt to a boil in a medium pot. When boiling, thoroughly whisk in the cornmeal, then lower the heat to medium. Whisk out any large lumps. When mixture thickens, stir in the oil and reduce heat to low. Simmer for about 20 minutes over low heat and stir often, making sure the mixture doesn’t stick to the sides or bottom of pot. If using cheese, stir it in after polenta is cooked but is still hot.
While the polenta simmers, heat a large saute pan over medium heat and add just enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan. When the oil is hot, add the onion and bell pepper, and cook until they start to soften. Add the eggplant and cook until is starts to soften, stirring occasionally. Add zucchini, garlic and tomato paste, and cook for another few minutes, stirring often, until zucchini begins to soften. Stir in tomatoes, lower the heat to a simmer, and cook for another 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
When all vegetables are soft and tomato sauce is thick, stir in the vinegar and herbs, cook for another minute, then remove from heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
To assemble, spoon filling into large ramekins, small bowls or a large baking dish, leaving at least a half inch at the top. Pour warm polenta over filling and bake for 20 minutes, or until the polenta is slightly browned and the filling is heated through. Remove from oven and let sit for 5 minutes to cool off a bit. (Be careful when handling the hot serving dishes.)
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