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French Ratatouille Soup

This soup version of the classic Provencal dish is good hot or cold, pureed or not, as a first course or a meal. Talk about a soup for all seasons. And even the fussiest eaters like it long as you don't tell them that eggplant is in it. Serve to 4-6 people, depending on whether it's to be a meal or a hearty first course.

Garnish: balsamico vinegar and shreds of fresh basil

In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, saute the onion and garlic in the oil for about 3 minutes over medium heat, then toss in the eggplant, zucchini, and pepper and saute, stirring from time to time, another 5 minutes.

Cut in the tomatoes with their juice and stir. Stir in the basil, thyme, stock, cayenne pepper, salt, and black pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes.

If you are going to serve the soup hot and chunky, ladle it into bowls immediately. Spoon a little balsamic vinegar over each serving and sprinkle with fresh basil.

If you'd like to serve it as a puree, ladle the solids into the blender first, then thin with the broth. You can serve it hot immediately--or chill and serve it cold. In all cases, garnish each bowl at serving time with a dribble of balsamico and fresh basil shreds.

The soup is also good as a chunky cold soup--it's nicely substantial for a refreshing summer lunch.