Budget-stretcher's delight: growing your own ratatouille

My wife and I were introduced to ratatouille several years ago by friends who had to stretch the dollar in ways that would tax a rubber band. Somehow the constant need to economize never compromised flavor in the dinners they served to guests. The meals were invariably delicious, and the ratatouille was no exception. It looked good and tasted great. In fact, we were so impressed that we've been ''growing'' it ever since.

That's yet another beauty of ratatouille. The listed ingredients bring an immediate smile to the home vegetable gardener's face. He's likely to have most of them growing in his own backyard.

From the cook's point of view, it's easy to make, too, and variations on the theme are almost infinite. Ratatouille is a French invention, coming to us from the Provence section of the country. No one knows for sure, of course, but the dish probably originated in a farm kitchen where the housewife solved the dilemma of ''too many crops'' from the summer garden by combining them all - peppers, eggplant, summer squash or zucchini, and cucumbers - in a single dish topped off with tomato paste.

Ann Reilly, a commentator with Bedding Plants Inc., an educational group distributing information on flower and vegetable plants using nursery-grown seedlings, gives these hints on how to ''grow your own'' ratatouille:

Sweet peppers. Set out when all danger of frost has past and when night temperatures are unlikely to fall below 55 degrees F. Set each plant 24 inches apart in humus-rich soil. Keep the soil moist, particularly during flower set, when drought stress will prevent the fruit from setting.

When very hot weather arrives, mulch the soil to keep it from overheating. Peppers seldom set fruit when the temperature climbs above 85 degrees F., so mulching is needed under these conditions to lower the temperatures radiating back up at the plants.

Peppers are generally harvested green but can be left on the plants to redden up and become sweeter. Besides their use in ratatouille, they can be stuffed, stewed, or used raw in salads.

Hot peppers. A close relative of the sweet pepper is used to spice up the ratatouille (if you are not saving them all for the Mexican dishes you prepare).

Two or three hot-pepper plants are all the average family needs. There are several hot-pepper varieties available from garden centers. Or you could use the ornamental pepper that was designed to add bright patches of color to the flower gardens - its fruits are edible and generally very hot. Most ornamentals are petite and can be planted as close as six inches apart. The nursery will tell you how far apart to space them.

Eggplants. Set out the eggplants 24 to 30 inches apart when you do the peppers. Like peppers, they are also sensitive to cold. The soil should be deeply worked and well fertilized. Mulch once the weather has turned good and hot and the soil is nicely warm. Harvest anytime from one-third to fully mature.

Cucumbers. Like other tropical vegetables (they originated in the Ganges River Valley), cucumbers must go into the garden when frosts are no longer a threat. Cukes require a steady supply of fertilizer applied to a well-drained soil. They can be left to trail along the ground, but you will save space and get better-shaped fruit if they are permitted to climb up a fence or trellis.

Zucchinis. This is one of the more popular and prolific forms of summer squash. Its fruits are eaten in the immature stage, in contrast to the winter squash, which is allowed to ripen and form a thick, hard skin.

For best results, pick the zucchini when it is about the size of a conventional cucumber or sooner. These bush-type vines should be planted about four feet apart and given three feet in which to trail. You can buy zucchini plants already started, but they also grow very quickly from seed, just as cucumbers do.

Zucchini needs a warm soil that is rich in organic matter and should be mulched only when very hot weather arrives.

Don't worry if your zucchini fails to set fruit when the first flowers arrive. All squash produce male and female flowers, and sometimes they start out by producing only one kind. Be patient, because the plant will soon get its act together and the zucchinis will form.

All these ratatouille-type vegetables require at least six hours of sun a day if they are to produce well.

Making ratatouille is simple: Cut the various vegetables into bite-size pieces and saute in a small amount of butter or vegetable oil. Season to taste with onions, garlic, oregano, or other spices, and top with tomato sauce.

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