Ratatouille

For a long time, I had no success with making ratatouille: it always turned out disappointingly watery, no matter what I did. I tried varying the amount of olive oil I used, cooking the dish for a longer or shorter time, salting the courgettes and aubergines, not salting anything… Nothing seemed to make any difference. For a while, I pretty much gave up on the dish, but then the vegetable box stepped in to give me a prod in the right direction. Over a couple of weeks, I received a surfeit of peppers, aubergines and courgettes, which is really the closest an inanimate object like a vegetable box can come to giving you a good shake, and shouting at you to get over yourself and just make a ratatouille already.

I pored over Elizabeth David’s recipe (in A Book of Mediterranean Food) and Nigella Lawson’s (in How to Eat), among other versions. I also spent some time swooning over the version of Thomas Keller’s Confit byaldi so gorgeously depicted in Pixar’s Ratatouille, though I knew that, realistically, I was never going to have the patience to recreate such a delicately-made version of the dish.

I’m not sure what serendipitous impulse possessed me to add a small carton of passata into the pot when I did make my ratatouille, but it turned out to be the secret ingredient which turned the dish from a wappit, watery failure into a rich, unctuous success. Clearly fresh or tinned tomatoes on their own were not going to cut it: they needed the extra boost. I’m not sure how authentic this addition is (a quick trawl around google suggests that many recipes use passata or chopped tomatoes, but not usually both), but it has now become a staple in my kitchen. Eoin loves it, and will mainline bowfuls at a time: this is a relief as he is developing a toddlerish fussiness about many vegetables, and it’s good to know that ratatouille remains a reliable favourite.

Ratatouille

I realise that it’s beginning to look as if I work for Cirio, but I honestly do think they are the best tinned tomatoes out there. When the tomatoes are a major focus of the dish, as they are here, I think it’s worth splashing out.

You will need:

  • One large onion, or two small ones, fairly finely chopped
  • One or two large peppers, sliced (ideally, I’d suggest red peppers, but I’m using small orange ones here, because they were all I had in the kitchen)
  • An aubergine, cut into smallish chunks
  • Three or four medium-sized courgettes, sliced
  • A couple of cloves of garlic, crushed
  • A 400g tin of chopped tomatoes, or an equivalent weight of strongly-flavoured fresh ones
  • 200g passata
  • Plenty of olive oil

As an aside, there’s a lot of chopping involved in this recipe, so you may want to stagger the preparation of the vegetables: slice the onions and the peppers first, as they will need to be cooked for the longest time, then get to work on preparing the aubergines and courgettes while they are cooking.*

Heat a generous slug of olive oil in a large saucepan, add the chopped onion, let it soften a little, then add the peppers. Cook gently for about ten minutes, then add the aubergines and another splash of oil (they’ll soak up any liquid in the pan in double-quick time, and you want to keep everything lubricated). Continue to cook gently, adding the courgettes and the garlic as soon as the aubergine has absorbed some of the oil and is getting soft. Regarding the garlic: ordinarily, I would add garlic towards the beginning of cooking a dish, but, when you crush it, I find it has a nasty tendency to burn and stick to the bottom of the pan before you’ve even had a chance to get your wooden spoon to it. Adding it at this stage means you don’t risk this happening, but the flavour still has plenty of time to penetrate. Finally, add the chopped tomatoes and the passata: rinse out the tins/jars (as appropriate) with a little water and add this to the pot for a little extra lubrication. Turn the heat down so the pan simmers gently, cover and cook for about half an hour.

This keeps rather well in the fridge, and is, I think, nicer when served at room temperature than when it is hot. We ate this batch alongside baked whiting and new potatoes (cut potatoes into wedges, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt, bake at 200C or gas mark 6 for about 20 minutes, then lay the whiting fillets on top, season and continue to cook for 20-25 minutes more). Well, I say “we”. This is how Stephen and I ate it. Eoin got both hands in the dish immediately, and tried to climb in after them. It’s good to know that your cooking is appreciated, at least some of the time.

*As an added bonus, slicing the vegetables for the dish gives me an opportunity to come face to face with my culinary nemesis: the Ikea kitchen knife. Following an unlucky incident in the washing-up bowl, and another with a resilient onion, which left me partially nail-less, it is clear that it won’t be satisfied with just a taste my sweet human flesh.  Fortunately, I came out on top this time, and Mr Choppy was consigned back to his knife-block without having drawn any blood.

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