Ratatouille: A Mid-summer Nightshade Dream

By Beth Bader, author of The Cleaner Plate Club


It’s mid-summer and the heat is on, bringing out summer’s sexiest fruits, the nighshades; tomatoes, eggplant and peppers. Few produce items incite our tastebud lust quite as much as a vine-ripened heirloom tomato, once so accurately called the pomme d’amor, or love apple, by the French. But do you really know the dark, sexy truth about that brandywine lying seductively on the farmers market table?

 Nightshade Family Secrets

Nightshades as a whole are fascinating since even their most mundane member, the potato, can be toxic if its leaves, green parts or sprouts are eaten. This is due to the presence of alkaloids that affect nerve-muscle and digestive function. The same toxicity is present for leaves and stems of tomatoes and eggplants and peppers. Nightshade alkaloids are among the most powerful () and are used in many pharmaceuticals such as atropine. Among the nightshade family’s more notorious members are tobacco, belladonna or deadly nightshade, and the mandrake.

Mandrakes, surprisingly, are not an invention of J.K. Rowling’s books, although the real ones don’t have screaming infant faces. The “real” myth attached to mandrake roots does include the lethal scream when the root is pulled from the ground. The root itself is bifurcated, or forked, often appearing like a human figure, hence the common name mandrake.

Harry Potter and crew used a potion made from mandrakes to reanimate those who had been petrified, but the true effects of nightshades are quite the opposite. The plant family’s more lethal members cause hallucinations, coma, convulsions and death. Deadly nightshade, or belladonna, was used as anesthetic before the Middle Ages — if your condition did not kill you, the surgery procedure quite possibly would.

Despite the risks associated with nightshades’ alkaloids, mandrakes were once thought to be the source of a fertility, or love potion, and were used in magic rituals. Perhaps this was the toxic flower that Puck himself sought out in A Mid-summer Night’s Dream that would cause his hapless victim to fall in love with a man wearing a donkey head. That sounds hallucinogenic enough for sure.

Even eggplants are not safe from this insanity. Its species name melangena was translated into the familiar Italian melanzana, or mela insana, the mad apple. The fruit was at one time widely believed to be poisonous even though the leaves, flowers and stems are the toxic parts. The presence of the same toxin, solanine, gives the eggplant’s skin its bitter and complex flavor. Like solanine, capsaisin is an alkaloid. Capsaisin is the compound that gives the pepper, another in-season member of the nightshade family, its characteristic heat.

 Summer Love Potion

Love, heat, insanity and a dash of danger all mixed together in one pot? Sounds like the perfect potion to me, or at least a good ratatouille. Add to this, another prolific summer vegetable in season now, summer squash. Since I’ve led you down this lusty path, you may insert here any innuendo you can think of about your zucchini, but I will warn you, size matters. Smaller summer squash have more flavor. The larger ones are not as desirable. Mix this concoction well, with a hint of sweetness and spice, and you definitely have a recipe for summer love, or at least a recipe you will love.


Ratatouille: A Mid-summer Nightshade Dream

This dish is great served with roast chicken and Sourdough bread, but it makes a meal of its own without any meat. Even better, serve it warmed the next morning with a fried egg on top and a dash of hot sauce for an amazing breakfast. There’s nothing like getting in a serving of veggies before your day gets busy. Okra is not a traditional ingredient, but it gives the dish a Cajun twist; there’s also a tiny bit of heat from the red pepper flakes. For more heat, try your favorite hot sauce on the side.


  • 1 pound eggplant, diced medium ({1/2}-inch cubes)
  • {1/2} teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper, sliced julienne
  • 1 green bell pepper, sliced julienne
  • {1/2} pound baby okra, tops cut off and halved lengthwise, optional
  • 2 {1/2} lbs. deep-red-fleshed heirloom tomatoes, quartered (Beefsteak or Cherokee Purple, or a mix of different colors for great flavor)
  • {1/2} pound zucchini, diced medium ({1/2}-inch cubes)
  • {1/2} pound yellow squash, diced medium ({1/2}-inch cubes)
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • {1/8} teaspoon red pepper flakes (or hot sauce), optional
  • Black pepper to taste


  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Sprinkle the eggplant with salt and set aside in a colander to drain for at least 30 minutes. Rinse, drain, and pat dry.
  3. Meanwhile, heat the oil over medium heat in a large Dutch oven or ovenproof skillet. Sweat the onion and garlic about 5 minutes (sweating uses lower heat than sautéing; you only want to release flavor here, not brown the aromatics). Add the bell peppers and continue to sweat the vegetables for another 5 minutes. Add the okra and sweat for 10 minutes longer, stirring occasionally.
  4. Add tomatoes and smash a bit with the spoon. Stir in the diced eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash, vinegar, sugar, and red pepper flakes. Set the pot, uncovered, in the oven and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring halfway through the cooking time, until vegetables are browned just a bit on the edges. Season with salt and black pepper to taste.
  5. Serves 8 to 10.

You kids may even love ratatouille as well. And here is where that love may lead to a bit of deceit. If your kids are like mine and just can’t handle stews, one-pot meals or any “combination” dish, then you may want to add one more step to the mix: a blender. For all of those kids who have to have the sectioned trays for their meal lest any vegetable contaminate a starch, just blend the hot ratatouille carefully — very carefully and in small quantities — into, uh, “tomato soup.” Omit the red pepper flakes if your little ones don’t like the spice. Serve with grilled cheese and enjoy the mid-summer dream of watching your kids drink their vegetables. Almost like a hallucinogen, isn’t it?

Roasted Rataouille recipe courtesy of The Cleaner Plate Club. Beth Bader is author of the book which helps make real food a reality with 100 healthy recipes and tips on managing both picky eaters and a budget. The book is available locally at Pryde’s and The Kansas City Store. Online, you can find it at Amazon.com and as a Kindle book, as an ibook from Apple, and at BarnesandNoble.com.


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