Posted in Blog

The right ratatouille

Ratatouille: from the French rata —a military ration; and touiller—to stir. The military origin of the word indicates a thin vegetable stew with, perhaps, a few scraps of rancid meat floating on top. In its more appealing manifestation as a regional Niçoise dish, ratatouille is a hearty combination of aubergine, tomato, red peppers and courgettes. At its most basic, it is simple to pepare, however, making the most of this basic recipe, takes a little skill and more time than you may be willing to spend. In the perfect ratatouille, each of the four ingredients should be as individual and identifiable as the instruments in a string quartet.

Let’s begin by defining the “wrong” ratatouille. The monstrosity on the left, inspired by the Disney movie of the same name, is no more than a table decoration. It takes hours to prepare and it may as well be a raw vegetable salad with Ranch dressing. Don’t bother with it.

Wrong vs Right Ratatouille

To make the “right” ratatouille, each ingredient must be cooked separately with the best olive oil, then combined at the last minute with a staple base of melted red onion and garlic, a few herbs, and sprinkled with something sharp and astringent, to ameliorate the sweetness. It takes time and strategy, but it’s worth it.

The recipe below produces enough ratatouille for 4-5 hungry eaters. Any leftovers can be kept in the fridge and gently reheated (preferably in a saucepan rather than a microwave) up to 5 days later. You can probably freeze ratatouille, but the defrosted result will most likely have the consistency of a lumpy reconstituted sauce.

Cooking order

2-3 large Red Peppers: Roast whole in a very hot oven or directly over the flame or on a barbecue, until the skin is blackened. Rest them in a plastic bag for 10 mins, then slide off the skins and remove the membranes and seeds. Their taste will be sweet and smoky. Slice into 50mm strips, put aside and keep warm.

4-5 Tomatoes: If you can find vine-ripened, fleshy tomatoes, all the better. Put them in a bowl and pour over boiling water. Remove after a minute and skin them. Cut them in quarters and remove the seeds and inner liquid into a sieve over a bowl—you will be using this liquid later. Salt the tomato quarters lightly (some people like to add a little sugar as well) and sprinkle them with olive oil. Space them out on a wire rack in a moderate 160°C oven and cook for about 40 mins—until they are softened (not mush!) and aromatic. Remove, cut into 20mm cubes if necessary and keep warm.

2-3 Aubergines Cut into 20mm cubes, with the skin left on, and fry gently in a little olive oil until the white flesh looks toasted on the outside and they are quite soft—perhaps a little under-cooked at this stage. Put them aside and keep warm.

Red Onions & Garlic: Peel and halve 1-2 onions (depends on size). Slice the onions finely and cook them slowly with a little oil in a large pot. When they are soft, but not brown, add the crushed garlic along with salt and pepper to taste. I also like to add a pinch of dried chilli flakes for a kick. If you like the taste of oregano or thyme, throw a few sprigs in with the onions.

2-3 Courgettes/Zucchini: Cut into 20mm cubes. Do not salt them—we want them to be crunchy— and fry them quickly in olive oil the aubergine pan. They should show a little brown, but still be firm.

Assembly

Remember the tomato liquid? Push what you can through the sieve and throw away the seeds (or use them to grow more tomatoes). If you have a lot, simmer it and reduce to about a cup-full. It tastes nothing like tinned tomato or passata and will perk up the taste like magic.

Add the aubergines, pepper, tomatoes and courgettes to the softened onion-garlic in the pot and combine gently. Add some of the tomato liquid. At this stage you might like to add some fresh parsley and (not too much) basil. Taste—it will probably be too sweet. You can temper the sweetness with a few teaspoons of red wine vinegar. (Taste between each spoonful—we are not aiming for ratatouille pickle!) Bring the pot up to a slow simmer and cook until the aubergine is soft and toothsome. If it dries out, add more tomato liquid.

Serve on a large plate sprinkled with parsley. (DO NOT ADD GRATED CHEESE!)

Accompanies

Ratatouille is an excellent accompaniment to roast lamb or beef. If it is to be the centrepiece of the meal, I like to offer some pieces of fried haloumi or proscuitto on the same plate—the salty crispness accentuates the richness of the vegetables.

And if you have any of the tomato liquid left over—put it into shot glasses and spike it with gin or vodka. Your dinner guests will love you for it.

Posted in Blog

The Kill Switch Mystery

I recently finished my Telstra contract and decided to upgrade to an iPhone 11, not because there was anything wrong with my old phone, but to take advantage of Telstra’s offer of $20 a month off my bill for the next 24 months. I backed up the old phone to iCloud and then the nice Telstra lady began the download to the new phone. It was going very slowly. but she assured me everything would be hunky dory in a few hours, so I took it home. It wasn’t hunky dory at all—the phone wouldn’t connect to the WiFi.

Most of the apps were greyed out and the WiFi emoji was missing from the top tight of the screen. It was replaced by 4G because WiFi was disconnected and slow because the phone was trying to install the apps using Mobile Data—which is also potentially expensive.

If you touch a grey-ed out app, the phone makes it top priority and tries to begin the download. But in my case, the download would freeze after a few seconds.

I went through all the solutions I could find in the Apple Support pages and searched those helpful folks on YouTube. In order of priority, they suggested: Turn WiFi Off and On; Turn the iPhone off and on; Put the phone in Aeroplane Mode and then back; Reset Network settings, etc. To no avail… though I did notice that after a Reset the WiFi symbol would appear briefly then fade away.

The folks at Telstra, who have had years of training in reading and understanding arcane phone contracts, were stumped when it came to actually understanding how a smartphone works. Time to stop playing about, I decided.Time to consult the Genii at the Apple Genius Bar.

My Genius went through all the obvious solutions again; she also ran it through a hardware diagnostics program; she re-set the system… to no avail.

Finally, there was nothing for it but to call an extraordinary meeting of Le grand conclave des génies de la pomme. They appeared from back rooms, attired in green shirts, name tags and ceremonial masks (contre le Covid-19) and silently formed a circle around my iPhone, which was lying like a pathetic sacrifice in the centre of a newly sanitised oak veneer altar in the great temple of the Canberra Apple Store. They consulted in whispers and eventually agreed that the last and most drastic option was to wipe the phone’s software completely and re-install the back-up from scratch. Then a lone voice was heard, from the back row of the assembled Genii: “Does he by any chance have a VPN installed?”

He did, indeed. He had installed Surfshark VPN

I had installed Surfshark on the old phone to protect my data when I was relying on public WiFi in malls and libraries. And I had conscientiously turned it off before backing up, so logically, it should not have any influence on the re-install.

When the iPhone installs from an iCloud backup, it first downloads the Operating System, then the Settings and finally the Apps. They appear at first greyed out, then one-by-one, a clock-face wipe turns each one on. The order of turning on is probably not random, just opaque, but you can influence it by tapping an app to make it download first or next. However, in my case, tapping had not effect: the app stayed grey.

So where does a VPN come in?

The Culprit

Most modern VPNs include a function called Kill Switch. The purpose is to speedily and automatically cut the WiFi connection if the site tries to download rogue apps or viruses to your phone. Even though Surfshark had not been fully downloaded, the Kill Switch, is part of the Settings and it was On (see screen). So, as soon as the Kill Switch detected the phone trying to load an App, it cut the WiFi connection.

Resetting the Network briefly opened the WiFi connection, only to have the Kill Switch detect a problem and cut the connection again. Left alone, this would have gone on forever.

The Solution

Simple, though perhaps not instinctive: tap the (greyed out) Surfshark icon to make it download first. The Kill Switch recognises it as a “friend” and lets it install. Once installed, Surfshark recognises the WiFi network and allows all the other apps to download.

Better still, turn OFF the Kill Switch before backing up to iCloud.

The symptoms are baffling, but, like acupressure, the solution only requires a single finger tap. I record this in the expectation that in the future, some poor baffled iPhone owner might experience the same problem and Google will take his/her hand and guide her/him to this blog.

Learn more about how the VPN Kill Switch works.