Prepare at least one day in advance, giving the ratatouille time to mellow. Note that the cooking time is 4 hours.
1. Stem and peel the eggplant. Cut the flesh into 1" cubes and place them in a deep kettle filled with very salty water. Keep submerged with a non-corrodable palte for at least 1 hour. Stem and peel the zucchini. Cut flesh into 1" cubes and place in a deep colander. Toss the zucchini with salt and let stand 1/2 hour.
2. Meanwhile, in a very large heavy skillet or heavy-bottomed roasting pan cook the chopped onions and 1/2 cup water in 1 cup olive oil until the water has evaporated and the onions are soft and golden, about 30 minutes. Add the garlic, chopped herbs, bay leaf, sugar, salt, pepper, and 1 cup of the wine. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, for 10 minutes.
3. Coarsely chop the tomatoes with their skins in the work bowl of a food processor. Add to the skillet and continue cooking at a simmer 1 1/2 hours. Whenever the onion-tomato mixture starts to stick or burn, "spot deglaze" with a few tablespoons water and scrape with a wooden spoon.
4. Grill the peppers; when cool, peel, stem, seed and cut into small pieces. Set aside. Rinse and drain the eggplant and zucchini and lightly press dry with toweling.
5. Slowly heat the remaining 3 cups of olive oil in a wide pan or fryer until medium-hot. Add the zucchini in batches, and fry until golden on all sides. Transfer the zucchini with a slotted spoon to a colander set over a boil to catch any excess oil. When all the zucchini has been fried, fry the eggplant in the same manner. From time to time return the "captured" oil in the bowl to the pan.
6. Spread the zucchini, eggplant, and peppers over the simmering onion-tomato mixture and pour in the remaining wine. Cover and cook at the simmer for 1 1/2 hours. From time to time remove the cover to help evaporate some of the liquid. Place a colander over a large bowl and pour the contents of the skillet into it to drain. Stir carefully to avoid crushing the vegetables while trying to encourage any trapped oil and juices to drain. Quickly cool down the captured juices in order to remove as much oil as possible. If there is a lot of juice, boil it down until thick. Reserve all the frying oil and oil from the vegetables for later use. Pour the juices over the vegetables, taste for seasoning, add vinegar if necessary, and carefully stir to combine. Serve hot or cold. Sprinkle with fersh herbs.
This recipe is taken directly from the cookbook Mediterranean Grains and Greens by the wonderful and talented Paula Wolfert. She says:
"My friend Adrienne Zausner, an excellent home cook, shared this recipe with me. When I tasted her ratatouille, I was overwhelmed... It turned out to be the recipe of Mme. Saucourt of the famous and now defunct Hotel Mas des Serres in Saint Paul de Vence.
"The verbal instructions that Madame gave Adrienne were detailed and uncompromising: "The onions must be the fresh sugary kind you find in the summer market... don't use an eggplant that has a purple peduncle because it will be bitter. Whatever you do don't reduce the recipe..."
"At first glance, the recipe made me reel. My heart fell when I saw the amount of fine extra-virgin olive oil required, noted the quantities, and contemplated the time-consuming handwork. But this is absolutely the best ratatouille recipe I know... My theory is when you find the holy grail of a dish, you must respect it and never corrupt it."
Ms. Wolfert has been kind enough to hold book signings in our store.