I’ve carefully called this post A Ratatouille. Emphasis on the ‘A’. Ten years of food blogging has taught me to tread carefully when it comes to classics and people get very upset if they think you’ve got it wrong. To be honest, I don’t like people messing with the classics too much myself; there comes a point when it’s not really the classic dish and merely a dish inspired by it. But recipes, like language and others things, move on with the times. When I look back to the kind of food I cooked back in the late seventies and early eighties when I was working as a cookery editor, newly married and hosting dinner parties, most of it is far removed from the kind of food I cook today. And dinner parties don’t happen. Partly because I’m single now and prefer simpler forms of entertaining – currently light lunch in my garden (weather permitting) and aperitivo (a few snacks to go with early evening drinks) – and I’d never dream of spending two days preparing food for dinner for friends now. I still like cooking and I simply love cooking for family and friends, but eating nice food with them is the important thing, not trying to channel the Roux family or Marcus Wareing.
These thoughts all stemmed from the decision to make ratatouille today – an ideal accompaniment to the lamb I was taking from my freezer for tonight’s supper. I used to make ratatouille a lot back in those far-off days I was speaking of. Though, having said that, it’s so far back one couldn’t make it at any time of year. Food was much more seasonal at that time and hard as it may be for some of you younger people to believe, there were times of the year when you couldn’t – really couldn’t – buy peppers, courgettes and aubergines. So when summer came and the required ingredients arrived it was quite a special treat to have ratatouille – always made in the traditional way.
Then along came Delia Smith with her Summer Collection in 1993 and we all started roasting our ratatouille. And I’ve hardly looked back. The great thing about roasting the vegetables is the intensity of flavour – and how easy it is. No more frequent stirring the pot on top of the hob; no more watching it doesn’t catch on the bottom and burn. Just chop it all up, douse in olive oil and throw in the oven. Sure it needs to be checked and turned a couple of times, but basically it looks after itself. Roasted Ratatouille is very good on many counts – but it is really quite different to the classic original, both the flavour and texture. And really, I don’t think the question of which method you use, or which is best is important – it’s more a question of what you’re in the mood for, how you’re going to serve it … unless you’re my son who thought he’d combine the two methods recently – preparing it the traditional way to start and then transferring to the oven to finish off. I didn’t get to taste it, although he WhatsApped me a photo. So I thought I’d give it a go.
I started though with looking up the original version again in old, revered books: Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking and Julia Child’s The French Chef Cookbook. I also checked out an old copy of New Larousse Gastronomique.
Even here you will find differences. Larousse, apart from briefly softening the onion to begin, throws all the vegetables in together and cooks for an hour. Julia Child, however, states that ‘when a ratatouille is made as it should be’ the vegetables must be cooked separately to retain their shape and character, and mixed together only briefly at the end. Elizabeth David cooks most of the vegetables together from the start, but adds the tomato about halfway through. I remembered this was what I always did when I started making this regularly – but then Elizabeth David was my food guru at the time.
I didn’t check exactly what my son did; wasn’t totally sure of my plan when I got started, but was convinced that really things couldn’t go seriously wrong, so I’d just go with the flow of what I fancied doing as I cooked. I give the amounts I used, but that’s a moveable thing, depending on what you have to hand and your preference. They are the traditional mix of vegetables but if you don’t like one – leave it out. Elizabeth David even talks about some people adding potato – though I’ve never tried that. The dish originated in Nice, France, and is sometimes known as Ratatouile Nicoise. It would have originally been made with what seasonal vegetables were to hand and the quantity available rather than a specific set of ingredients and instructions.
- 1 large onion
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 aubergine
- 2 courgettes
- 2 sweet peppers
- 4 large tomatoes
- extra virgin olive oil
- herbes de Provence
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
First of all prepare the vegetables. I like mine fairly chunky but cut them to the size you prefer and keep them roughly the same size; this will affect the cooking time if you choose either very small or quite large. I like to skin my tomatoes – just cut a shallow cross with a sharp knife in the base, cover in boiling water for a minute, then remove. When they’re cool enough to handle the skins should easily come off. Also cut out the hard core at the top. Some people like to remove the seeds too but I’m happy to just chop them at this stage. Likewise some of the old recipes suggested salting the aubergine and even courgettes to drain off excess moisture before cooking, but this was a step too far for me. I was definitely in peasant mode, not haute cuisine.
Heat a little olive oil in a pan and add the chopped onion. Fry gently, turning frequently, until softening. Add finely chopped garlic or grate in – as I do. Mix in. Don’t cook the garlic at this stage as if it browns it will become bitter. Transfer the onion and garlic to a large ovenproof dish with a lid. I chose a shallow pan but you could do it in a high-sided pan.
Add a little more oil to the frying pan and cook the aubergine until the pieces start to become translucent but not brown. Add to the onion. Now cook the courgettes and then the peppers in the same way, separately until just softening (I forgot to take a photo of the peppers!). Then chop the skinned tomatoes and add to the mix – but don’t cook them first.
Season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle over about a teaspoon of herbes de Provence. This is after all a Provençal dish! Remember that dried herbs need to be added early on but if you choose to use fresh put them in later, near the end of cooking. Drizzle over a little more olive oil.
Mix everything together gently. I had a sudden inspiration at this point to put a lid on for the first part of cooking so it didn’t dry out too much and put the dish into a 200C/180 Fan/Gas 6 oven for 40 minutes and then checked how it was doing.
The vegetables were almost tender – I checked with the tip of a sharp knife – so I returned to the oven for another 20 minutes without the lid. This allowed them to brown and caramelise slightly and the mixture dry out a little.
I served it with a simply fried lamb chop. I sat the plate on a gorgeous placemat I bought in Nice when I was last there in September 2019 to add a little more Provençal mood to my dinner.
The ratatouille was delicious. In texture more like a traditional version as I’d kept the lid on for much of the oven time (perhaps I’ll try without next time). But there was a distinctive individual flavour to the vegetables. This may well have been cooking them separately as I was conscious of their distinct smells arising tantalisingly from the pan as I fried them, but I didn’t stir the mixture at all once I’d transferred it to the oven, allowing them to cook more separately. Whatever it was, it was really worth the extra effort. There’s no doubt that the simple roasted method – just throwing everything in together at the beginning – is easier. Tonight’s version did take a bit of time to prepare – but I really think it was worth the effort. I have quite a lot left over! But it can be warmed through, is delicious cold, and maybe some might find its way to the family who live nearby. It’s been such a drab and damp day here in London, it was lovely to bring a bit of Provençal sunshine into my home.