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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.