On the Subject of Ratatouille

Ratatouille

Ratatouille

It has been a very boozy and indulgent couple of weeks, not least because I have been the guest of BAFTA twice and have an uncontrollable penchant for free champagne and delicious canapes.  This has unfortunately coincided with my first wedding dress fitting which, whilst not a complete disaster, highlighted to me what I knew in the back of my mind already:  you would look a lot better in that dress if you dropped a few, love.

So with this in mind, I have set myself on a month of bleak deprivation, giving up cake, processed food, anything high in calories and my beloved booze (with a free pass, of course, for my hen night) in an attempt to be a leaner bride.  My consolation is that my just-booked honeymoon will be an opportunity to gorge on Spanish food and undo all of my good work:  pintxos in the Basque country, tapas in Andalucia and more Albarino and Rioja than I could ever drink.  In the meantime, I have had a complete purge of my fridge and cupboards and have replaced all of my favourite things with little more than fruits, vegetables and herbal teas.  The wine has gone into storage and Ollie has been under strict instructions to hide the gin in a place I will never find it.

On my first day of this regime, I decided to make myself a ratatouille.  Having become somewhat unfashionable in the mid-2000s and being merely an assembly of vegetables, I initially thought it unworthy of a blog post.  However, in these austere and health-conscious times, I reconsidered. 

The beauty of ratatouille is that it does not really have a set list of ingredients.  Of course, the traditional dish includes the usual combination of tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, courgettes and onions, peppered up with some basil, but there is no real rule to say that this has to be the case.  I have a friend who dislikes courgettes and, when I have made the dish for her in the past, it has not suffered for the lack of them.  I have also found a ratatouille the perfect excuse to use up any old veg that has been taking up space in the veg drawer for far too long.  Yesterday, my ratatouille included half a punnet of slightly browning old button mushrooms and a handful of pitted green olives, left over from the last round of martini-making, thrown in at the last minute to add a little vinegary punch.  This freedom with ingredients also has the potential to make it a cheap dish – Peckham has a number of shops and market stalls that sell bowls of the aforementioned veg for a very small cost, so you could end up making a huge batch for little more than a fiver.

The quickest way of making ratatouille, of course, is to chop all of the vegetables and stew them together in a pan until soft.  This was the way I used to cook it when I first left home and started cooking vegetarian meals for myself, and until I discovered that actually reading the cookbooks, rather than just pulling out random recipes, actually makes you a far better cook.  I started to realise that many cooks advocated the method of cooking each of the individual components separately to preserve the unique flavour and texture, rather than stewing them together.  This made sense to me, as one of the problems I encountered was that each ingredient had a different cooking time; the mushrooms would start to brown before the aubergines had barely softened; and I could never get the right consistency of the ratatouille as a whole.  This is, of course, a lot more time consuming than the all-in-one approach, but it does give a better result.  The separate components are then brought together as a whole with a short bake in a hot oven – not necessarily to cook them any further, more to allow the flavours to merge.

Chop up your vegetables into large pieces.  Start by frying some sliced onions with some finely chopped garlic, and then fry each of the vegetables in turn until golden.  Combine in an ovenproof dish with a sprinkle of dried thyme and a generous amount of seasoning.  Bake in an oven heated up to 180°c / 350°f/ gas 4 for around half an hour.  Top with torn fresh basil and fresh oregano and, if you’re really naughty, some parmesan.

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