25 June 2009

Recipe - Rediscovering Ratatouille

Recipe - Rediscovering Ratatouille


The other day, we had some visitors for a meeting at Steenbergs.  Our dilemma was not really about spices and herbs – that’s something we do, day in day out.  But what were we going to offer them for food.  We’re a small organic herbs & spices business, based in rural and very parochial North Yorkshire.  There aren’t any fancy restaurants around here and we tend to do all our own cooking – as what’s available isn’t always that great and usually overpriced, even if it saves on having to do the washing up.


What we cooked was a Mediterranean vegetable tart and ratatouille.  I have recently rediscovered ratatouille after I overdosed on it at University where we seemed to live on "rat and chips" (homemade and shallow fried, should you dare ask).


Ratatouille is simple to make, but time-consuming.  Even worse, it is easy to make horribly just by rushing it.  The classic mistake is to whack all the ingredients except the tomatoes together into a pan, fry it up quickly, then add a tin of tomatoes and stew for 10 minutes and serve.  That isn’t ratatouille even if it is perhaps rat; it's really a vegetable mush.


No, proceed slowly and with a little bit of care and attention.  All the ingredients must be prepared and cooked separately, before being brought together as a beautiful symphony at the end.  The other thing is be flexible – use what’s in season or looks good in the grocer, together with what’s to hand in the kitchen.  I love it cold as well as hot.


2         Decent sized aubergines

4         Ripe red peppers (or other colours – I used a nice locally grown small orange pepper as well as a really sweet red pepper)

3         Courgettes

2         Large onions

4         Cloves of garlic

1kg      Ripe tomatoes

Plenty of olive oil – perhaps 150ml

Rosemary and thyme and parsley (at this time of the year, I used rosemary and thyme straight from the garden and left out the parsley)

Salt and pepper


Get a decent sized heavy bottomed casserole ready as you build up the ingredients.


Prepare the vegetables and keep separated: dice the aubergine, salt lightly and leave to drain in a colander for 10 minutes; finely chop the onions and garlic; remove the stalks and seeds from the peppers and cut into strips and then cut these into 2cm lengths; dice the courgettes, discarding the ends.  To prepare the tomatoes, plunge them in water to remove the skins and peel and then chop them up; some people remove the pips but I like the texture that they add to the sauce.


Heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a frying pan and gently fry the onions and garlic until soft and just turning golden.  This will take about 10 minutes.  Take out and put into casserole.


Now gently fry the prepared sweet peppers in the pan until they caramelise and soften.  Carefully remove from the oil using a slotted spoon, so preserving much of the oil.  Transfer the peppers to the casserole.


Top up the olive oil if needed.  Next add the courgettes and fry these at a slightly higher temperature, until they are lightly browned on the light green pulp.  Turn at least once.  Add these to the casserole.


Whilst the courgettes are frying wash the aubergines and then pat them dry. Salting the aubergines, removes some of the bitterness - it comes out as a green liquid that looks a bit like washing up liquid.  Fry the aubergines, until lightly browned, turning them a couple of times.  Add the fried aubergines to the casserole.


Now add the chopped tomatoes, chopped herbs and some cracked/coarsely ground Steenbergs pepper and salt to the casserole.  Alternatively, season with some Steenbergs organic Perfect Salt seasoning.  Simmer gently with the lid on for 30 minutes.  I sometimes add a little wine or cognac to give the ratatouille an extra dimension - I used a rosé that Sophie's enjoying at the moment.


Remember that ratatouille is not a hard and fast recipe, and everyone should have their own version and should also flex around the basic recipe using whatever is in season or looks good.  The key is to be patient and to use aubergines, onions and garlic as the base and then build it up.  Even though everyone thinks of ratatouille as a tomato based dish, it's actually an aubergine dish and you can even leave out the tomato if you want.