Ratatouille makes it a real pleasure to be vegetarian. Don’t get me wrong; far too often, “ratatouille” is a mushy, tomatoey mess swimming in red, slightly sour juices. Sometimes it even has carrots in it. That is not the dish I’m talking about. The real thing is a lot more work, but well worth the effort –especially as it’s even better when left overnight. It’s equally good hot or at room temperature, as a main course or as an accompaniment to grilled or roast lamb for confirmed carnivores.
I learned to do it decades ago from that holy bible of French cuisine, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Beck, Bertholle, and Child. Even Julia and her friends, who are no strangers to hard work, admit it’s a lot of effort. But my very first attempt at their recipe proved how worthwhile the extra work was and now I never do it any other way. As with moussaka and lasagne, I do generally make more than we intend to eat, and either eat the leftovers the following day, or freeze them.
2 medium aubergines
2 -3 courgettes, depending on size
1 large red pepper
2 medium onions
about 500 g ripe, fleshy tomatoes
2 cloves garlic
salt and pepper
Usually I don’t think it’s worth salting aubergines and courgettes, but for this recipe I do because I think it makes them absorb less oil, and it reduces any chance of the juices being bitter. So peel the aubergines (yes, really!) and cut them lengthwise into oblong slices about 2 cm by 6 cm and 0.5 cm thick. Wash the courgettes but don’t peel them, and cut into slices the same size and shape. Put them all in a colander, sprinkling coarse salt between the layers, put a plate on top, weight it down, and leave to drain for half an hour. Meanwhile, deseed the pepper and cut into strips, slice the onions, and peel the tomatoes. Squeeze juice and seeds out of the tomatoes and cut the flesh into strips. Chop the parsley.
Pour some olive oil into a large frying pan and heat until it shimmers. Wipe salt off aubergines and fry in batches in a single layer, turning over to brown both sides. Remove to a plate as they are done and add more oil as necessary. Repeat with the courgettes.
In the same pan, gently fry the onions and peppers for a few minutes until the onions have softened but not browned. Stir in the crushed garlic and season with salt and pepper. Then spread the diced tomato over the top, season again, cover, and cook over a medium heat for 5-10 minutes, until the tomatoes start to exude their juice. Remove the lid and boil fast for 5 minutes more to reduce the juices as much as possible.
Put about 1/3 of the tomato mixture in the bottom of a large, heavy casserole (I use a Le Creuset or a lidded earthenware pot). Add half of the aubergines and courgettes, then more tomatoes, then the rest of the aubergines and courgettes, and finish with tomatoes. Sprinkle with parsley.
Cover and place on a moderate heat for 15 minutes. Then remove the lid, increase the heat and cook for 10 minutes more to reduce. Child and co. say you should end up with just a few tablespoons of flavoured oil, but it depends how watery your tomatoes are, and I usually end up with more than that. It’s more important not to burn it than it is to reduce the juices to nothing. Taste the juice anyway, and season or reduce further if necessary.
Done! Eat hot or at room temperature with good bread to mop up the juices.