“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgement. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.” – Anton Ego, Ratatouille (2007)
Dear Ratatouille, I think I love you. You were the last thing I tasted before I went to bed, moreish, sunshine-y and bright. This morning I woke up smiling, knowing you were waiting in the fridge for a touch of my lips.
Dear Ratatouille, you be the sky and I’ll be the bird.
You could go all poetic and gushing with Ratatouille, I think. When it’s right, it’s such a wonder; I could eat it to a band playing, as a friend would say. However, if you’ve never made Ratatouille before, it can all be a bit daunting. I mean, no two recipes are the same yet each contends to represent the classic Ratatouille. How can this be?
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for example suggests frying the vegetables in four different frying pans simultaneously. That rules the recipe out for me right away. Who in under God owns four frying pans?
Conversely, food writer Felicity Cloake recommends braising the Ratatouille slowly in an oven, over the course of a couple of hours. I have a lot of time for Felicity and her ‘Perfect’ column in the Guardian (I am a regular reader), but I draw the line at braising vegetables for hours. Meat, maybe.
To boot, that most French man in the world, Raymond Blanc heaps everything into the same pan and sweats slowly. Ratatouille being a nicoise staple, I’d have suspected Raymond would be the man to follow. Mais, non! Popping my Ratatouille cherry recently, I needed to make some decisions on who and what I would follow. I decided the oven was out of the question, for a start. It felt like too much of a palaver, as did Hugh’s four-pan mission. Nor did I want to heap everything into the same pan, like Raymond suggests in Foolproof French Cookery.
During my deliberations, I was reminded of another French man, in this case Remy the rat from Ratatouille. Faced with cooking something spectacular for ashen-faced critic, Anton Ego, Remy makes something simple, yet something wondrous: He makes Ratatouille. With Remy on my mind, I decide to go simple but aim for wondrous. I thus followed a recipe from Jenn Segal, who writes an American food blog called ‘Once Upon a Chef’ – which is also excellent. I’ve made one or two changes (suggested by my gut) but the methodology here is all Jenn’s.
This is the result…
1 big aubergine, chopped into slightly larger-than-dice-sized pieces
2 or 3 courgettes, similarly chopped
1 bell pepper, any colour, finely diced
1 onion, finely diced
4 or 5 cloves of garlic (depending on how badly you want people recoiling when you speak to them the next day) finely chopped
5 big vine-ripened tomatoes,
diced 1 heaped tbsp of tomato paste (not puree)
half a tsp of dried oregano scant
tsp of honey bunch of basil,
leaves picked and chopped or torn pinch of red chilli flakes olive oil salt
This will be made infinitely easier if you do all the chopping at the start. The first time I made it, I chopped as I went, but things went hectic half way through. Start by adding a good glug (three tablespoons or so) of good extra virgin olive oil to your biggest frying pan.
Bring it to a medium to high heat. Dump in the chopped aubergine and season with a good pinch of salt. Fry, tossing occasionally for about ten minutes (depending on how big your cubes are) until soft and starting to brown. Remove these to a plate and set aside. Add another tablespoon of oil to the same pan (no need to clean) and then dump in the cubed courgettes.
Fry and toss for four or five minutes, then season with another pinch of salt and then remove to the aubergine plate. Add another couple of tablespoons of oil to the plan and fry up the onion and pepper for five minutes, trying not to colour the onion too much. Add the garlic and stir fry for another two minutes, making sure not to burn the garlic. Turn the heat down if you have to.
Now add all the tomatoes – juice, seeds, skin, the whole shebang – as well as the tomato paste, the oregano, honey, chilli flakes and yet another pinch of salt. Bring to a simmer and bubble, stirring now and again until the tomatoes soften and begin to break down into a sauce.
Keep it going until some of the liquid boils off and then return the aubergines and courgettes to the mix. Heat through for no more than two minutes and then taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.
Stir through the bulk of the chopped basil, remove the whole mix to a serving dish and then sprinkle over the remaining leaves. You can stir this through pasta, use as a side dish for any roast meat or even as a topping for bruschetta with goats cheese.
But whatever you do, remember: Anyone can cook.
Read the full story in this week’s paper, available in your local newsagents today or subscribe to our Digital Edition by clicking below