Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Ratatouille

For such a simple dish, there's been an awful lot of hoohah written about how to make ratatouille - whole columns on which order to add the ingredients, or whether to cook them separately then bring them together, or if it's acceptable to use an Italian olive oil in this quintessentially French dish...

Personally, I don't think it matters much. I prefer to cook everything together because I think the ingredients should get to know each other in the pan rather than on the plate. And besides, life's too short to have five pans to wash up instead of one. I use the olive oil to hand - as long as it's good quality I don't care if it was pressed in Outer Mongolia.

What does matter to me are having good quality fresh ingredients, nothing wrinkly or tired-looking. The tomatoes matter most of all - a good tomato needs sunshine to have flavour, which means it needs to come from a hot country where it was grown outside in soil. I never, ever buy Dutch or Belgian tomatoes as they are grown in vast sheds under artificial lighting and rooted in water. They don't see earth or fresh air and they taste of nothing. I buy British in season and the rest of the year I only buy Spanish or Moroccan or whatever, as long as it's had sun.

On the basis that it is almost impossible to make one portion of ratatouille, this makes two generous ones, or even three if you dish it up alongside meat and carbs. And besides, ratatouille is one of those dishes that often tastes better next day...

What you need:
1 onion
4-6 medium size tomatoes
2 small courgettes
1 small aubergine, or 5-6 baby ones
1 red pepper
1 green pepper
A handful button mushrooms (optional)
2-3 cloves of garlic
Herbes de Provence or a bouquet garni
A bay leaf
Olive oil

What to do:
Heat a very generous amount of olive oil in a heavy pan on a moderate heat. Prepare the veg - cut the onion into wedges, the peppers into wide strips, the tomatoes into quarters, the courgettes into thick rounds and the aubergine into chunks (you can leave baby ones whole, or halve them). Peel and crush the garlic.

Sauté the onion and garlic until they are soft and the onion turns translucent. Add the tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and a pinch of the herbs, stir through, turn the heat down a notch and let everything stew gently for 20 minutes. Add the courgettes to the pan, stir through again and let stew for another 10-15 minutes. If you're including mushrooms, this is the time to add them. Season to taste and dish up. 


Cook's tips:
Ratatouille should not only look glossy and luscious, it should be unctuous too. If it's watery, it's not right. That's why it's important to turn the heat down and cook it slowly - if the hob's too hot the vegetables will boil and leach water. They will also break up too much. Don't put a lid on - let the water evaporate during cooking. This is another reason not to use hydroponic tomatoes as their water content is ridiculously high. It's also why I add the courgettes a bit later as they can turn soggy very quickly once they are cooked.

More on tomatoes - a punnet of cherry tomatoes or the baby plum type also work well in ratatouille.

Mushrooms have no place in a classic ratatouille but are a useful and acceptable extra to pad it out, especially if you're vegetarian and won't be having any meat on the side.

Grilled meats make a good accompaniment for carnivores - a lamb chop or two, sausages of some sort, or even a steak. Grilled or roasted fish is good too.

If you want carbs, rice, grains such as cous-cous, bulgur or quinoa, or a noodly pasta such as tagliatelle are all a good match. Or mop up the juices with some crusty bread.