Ahh ratatouille – back in the ’80s it sounded so exotic and foreign and glamourous! – Hey, I come from a small, rural town near the Welsh borders – we had to get our glamour where we could.
Back to the reminiscing….
Unfortunately, what sounded so appetising rarely lived up to expectation and for years the mere mention of the word would bring up memories of a soggy vegetable stew of bitter lumps of aubergine cotton wool and courgette mush with indigestion-inducing semi-raw peppers in watery tomato juice. So a few years ago, I got to thinking that I might give it another try and see if I couldn’t make something that might banish the horrors of yesteryear – after all, I loved all the individual components, so I reasoned that it shouldn’t be that difficult to combine them into a delicious whole.
The first book I turned to was the fabulous European Peasant Cookery by Elisabeth Luard. She notes that, as with many traditional dishes, there are almost as many variations as there are households that prepare it, each with its own justification as to why their version is the best. Nevertheless, the fundamentals of this southern French classic are pretty straightforward: using only those vegetables that can be found at their best in the gardens of Provence will do. Also, the dish should not be a stew, rather a marriage of cooked vegetables. The theory sounded good, but her recipe seemed to lack something, and so I turned to the recipe of another favourite cook, one relatively unknown in the UK – Madeleine Kamman. Madame Kamman has enjoyed most of her professional success in the United States, but she was born, and learned her craft, in France. Her recipe is the one that I have followed most closely, the only alterations being to reduce the quantity made to a manageable amount, so the wary might not be put off with having to prepare mountains of vegetables.
The dish is a wonderful riot of summer colours – reds, greens, yellows and neutrals – each colour represented by two different vegetables:
- Reds: red capsicum peppers and tomatoes
- Greens: green capsicum peppers and green courgettes
- Yellows: yellow capsicum peppers and yellow courgettes
- Neutrals: onions and aubergines
Each ingredient is prepared separately and the dish only comes together at the end. Once prepared, the vegetables can sit quite happily in the fridge if time constraints don’t allow you to prepare all the vegetables at the same time. This is a dish to be enjoyed on lazy summer days but the preparation should also be relaxing. For a start I sit down, switch on Radio 4 Extra (comedy and drama) and get so absorbed in listening that before I know it, the vegetables are all done. Find something that you enjoy listening to as well and the time will just fly by. Some of the instructions might seem a bit fussy, but the effort is well worth it, I assure you. The flavors are amazing.
The aim is to get the vegetables all of a similar size and their textures as close to each other as possible, which is why each vegetable needs its own degree of cooking time, and how you (hopefully) avoid the cotton wool/chewy/mush combo that haunted my dreams for so many years.
This will happily keep in the fridge for several days. If I have a free afternoon – because more vegetables WILL mean longer prep time – I will make a triple batch and enjoy several days of meals consisting solely of a bowl of ratatouille and a hunk of crusty bread. It’s that good.
1 large aubergine
1 red pepper
1 green pepper
1 yellow pepper
2 green courgettes
2 yellow courgettes
6 large plum tomatoes – vine-ripened for preference
1 large onion
4 tbs olive oil
3 cloves garlic
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley
salt & pepper
deep, heavy pan
- Prepare the aubergines. Peel the aubergines and cut into 2cm slices. Cut the slices into 2cm cubes. Put cubes into a sieve and scatter with 1-2tbs salt. Toss to ensure even coating. Leave to stand for 30 minutes to draw out the excess moisture. Discard liquid. Rinse and dry the aubergine pieces. Set aside.
- Prepare the peppers by removing the skin and the seeds. To skin the peppers, char them over a gas flame until blackened, then pop into a plastic bag and seal by twisting the neck of the bag around and tucking it underneath. After about 30 minutes, you can then slip the skins off quite easily. You can char the peppers one at a time, but I can quite easily fit three peppers at once around one of the gas burners on my stove top. No need to hold them on the end of a fork or anything – put them directly onto the flame and turn them around as they blacken. This is a little time consuming, but by far the best method – and believe me, I have tried them all. Putting the peppers under a grill or in the oven makes the peppers too soft once they have steamed in the plastic bag, and my blowtorch isn’t large enough to get a nice, black char without having to be refilled. NB Don’t rinse the peeled peppers, as you will wash away that lovely smoky flavour. Discard skin and seeds. Cut peppers into 2cm squares and set aside.
- Prepare the tomatoes. Using a sharp knife, cut out the hard core of the tomatoes, then cut a small cross in the skin at the base of each. Put tomatoes into a bowl and pour over boiling water. The heat will cause the tomatoes to swell slightly, and thanks to the cuts made, the skin will start to split. Drain the tomatoes by pouring the contents of the bowl onto a sieve over the sink. Place the sieve over the now empty bowl and slip off the tomato skins. With a sharp knife, cut the tomatoes in half horizontally around their middle and press out all of the seeds so that they fall into the sieve. Put the flesh of the tomatoes on one side. When all of the seeds have been removed, cut the flesh of the tomatoes into 2cm squares. Set aside.
- Using a wooden spoon, press the juice from the seeds collected in the sieve into the bowl below. Depending on the juiciness of the tomatoes, this might be quite a lot of liquid. Set aside.
- Prepare the onion. Peel onion and chop into 2cm pieces. Set aside.
- Prepare the courgettes. Slice into 2cm slices. If larger that 4cm in diameter, quarter the slices. Set aside.
- Prepare the garlic. Peel garlic and chop finely with a knife. Set aside.
- Prepare the parsley. Remove parsley leaves from stalks. Set aside.
With all the preparation done, now it’s time to cook the vegetables
- Pour 2tbs olive oil into a deep, heavy pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and fry until golden brown, stirring. Add the parsley – it will crackle and spit – then add the chopped onions. Keep the onions stirred until they are translucent and softened – about 10 minutes. Empty the pan into a bowl and set aside.
- Add the remainder of the olive oil and, when heated, toss in the aubergine. The aubergine will suck up the oil – but don’t be tempted to add more oil. Keep moving the aubergine pieces around the pan and then, when they have begun to brown and caramelise, they will eventually release the oil they absorbed.
- Add the chopped courgette – green and yellow – and continue to stir them around for a few minutes, until slightly softened.
- Return the onion mixture to the pan, and finally add in the prepared tomatoes and peppers and turn the heat down to low.
- Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and turn the vegetables together gently. Too rough, and the vegetables will start to break apart.
- Simmer gently for 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and strain out any juices. Add these to the tomato juice from earlier and pour this liquid into a small saucepan over a high heat. Boil rapidly until thickened and reduced to 1/3 of its original volume. Pour back over the softened vegetables and stir gently to combine. There should be just enough liquid to coat.
- Cover and leave overnight to let the flavours develop. A cool place will do, otherwise place in the fridge. Make sure the dish is returned to room temperature before serving.
Serving suggestion: This can be eaten as an accompaniment to a light main dish – omelettes/ham/cheese/quiche – but my favourite is just to eat it by itself. Served at room temperature with some warm, crusty bread or wholemeal toast – the contrast of the dry crunch with the plump and softened vegetables is amazing.
Cost: About £5.00 using vegetables from the local farm shop (July, 2011)