You might think ratatouille a simple proposition. “Rata” was army slang for food and “touiller” is to stir. And there you have it: you are by a campfire, probably in north Africa, surrounded by chaps in kepis, one lazily stirring a big pot. Unfortunately, life and ratatouille are never that simple.
This notion of one-pot cooking is quickly shattered if you read Cuisine du Terroir, a volume that mystified me when I first came across it, misconstruing the title and straining to understand what Robespierre’s Reign of Terror had to do with gastronomy. The concept of “terroir” was then in its infancy but, with food, it referred to a cuisine based in regionality and tradition. Despite this, the good book states that “a ratatouille is not a purée of vegetables all cooked together, but a final amalgam of separately prepared ingredients”.
This may be the problem when you get a collection of “maître chefs” to produce a volume of traditional recipes; haute cuisine gets in the way. The book goes on to say that the recipe “requires time and several utensils”.
I have to admit that I have never attempted a one-pot ratatouille but I have got close and certainly a lot closer than the pedantic version in Cuisine du Terroir. However one arrives at the “final amalgam”, one thing is certain: a ratatouille is not a ratatouille until the ingredients have been cooked together. There is an alchemy when these ingredients become more than the sum of their parts. This is why a ratatouille will always improve, tasting better the next day. Given this fact and on the principle of “in for a penny”, I always make a big batch and eat it hot or cold over a few days.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais
The quality of the vegetables is the essence of a good ratatouille. If good, ripe, fragrant tomatoes are not available, tinned plum tomatoes are a better option than a watery “salad” tomato. Serves at least eight.
3 red peppers
3 cloves of garlic
3 long aubergines or 2 large “Viola” aubergines.
150ml tomato passata
A few sprigs of thyme
20 basil leaves
● Sear the red peppers on a hot grill or open flame. Once well blistered, place them in a plastic bag and let them steam in their own heat for 20 minutes.
● Peel the onions and cut them into 1cm cubes. Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a large heavy casserole and let the onions stew gently for 15 minutes. While they cook, peel and chop the garlic quite finely and add it to the onions after 10 minutes.
● Cut open the peppers and remove their seeds and stalks. Peel off all the blackened skin. Cut the peppers into long strips and add them to the onion mixture, season with salt and milled black pepper. Stew gently for a further 10 minutes.
● Peel the aubergines and cut them into 1cm cubes. Add two more tablespoons of olive oil to a large frying pan and sauté the aubergines on a high heat, stirring them regularly. Continue until they soften and are lightly coloured before adding them to the stew. Add the passata and thyme, season again and bring to a simmer.
● Peel the courgettes in strips leaving half the peel: this retains the colour and flavour of the skin without inhibiting the cooking process. Cut into 1cm cubes and sauté in a tablespoon of olive oil in the same pan you used for the aubergines. Cook on a high heat until they colour and wilt slightly and add to the casserole, removing it from the heat.
● Remove the stalks of the tomatoes. Drop the tomatoes in boiling water for 20 seconds, then refresh in iced water before peeling, cutting in half and removing the seeds. Chop the tomatoes into 1cm cubes and add to the casserole. Return the pot to the heat, add a glass of water, season again and simmer for 10 minutes. Stir in the basil leaves, roughly torn, and remove from the heat. The ratatouille is best served warm rather than very hot. If not serving straight away, it should be cooled and refrigerated as soon as possible.
Rowley’s drinking choice
Ratatouille is often served with meat and thus best supported by wines with good tannins, such as those of the Rhône or Tuscany. If served on its own, or with salads, rosé might be a better bet.
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