Anyone who knows me knows that I am a true Francophone-Francophile and, having studied, lived and worked there in the past, I could easily up sticks and move there again anytime if finances and circumstance ever allowed it. Aside from the great art, weather, landscapes and architecture, (oh, and handsome men!), one of my true loves is the country’s food.
The recent UK shortage of courgettes and aubergines has made me realise just how often I use these trusty Provençal vegetable staples, and I missed my regular ratatouille for a while there.
I have made ratatouille for many friends and family over the years - and I am astounded at how people assume it is difficult or complicated to make, when nothing could be further from the truth! It’s a big old peasant pot of wonder - and so full of goodness, as well as being 100% vegan and fantastically paleo, (until you add my extra ingredient of a chunk of cheese) without having to try. Men in my past (and present!) have initially turned their carnivorous noses up at it when I offer it as a dish in its entirety, served with cheese and baguette or just with some Puy lentils; but once tasted, you learn that this dish can be the bride and not always the bridesmaid, on the dinner plate. (It is also, however, exceedingly good with fish or meat it must be said).
I learnt my recipe from the half-Italian grandma of an Aixoise friend when I studied Sciences-Po at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Aix-en-Provence and I have decided to share it here once and for all, to counter any future typing up and emailing off the details to friends after they’ve been for supper, or I’ve brought it along to a BBQ or party.
NB - please note, if you’re a baker and work on exact portion sizes for cooking, this recipe is not for you. I cook with my eyes, nose and mouth - as well as my hands, so the ingredients and the proportions are all about what feels, smells, looks and tastes right to me.
The ingredients required are more or less as follows:
2 x large aubergines
2 x large courgettes
1 x red, 1 x yellow and 1 x green pepper (or orange, whatever colour is fresh and on sale)
2 x large onions
3-4 cloves of garlic
A punnet or two of fresh and quite ripe tomatoes - or 2 x tins of as good a tin of tomatoes as you can find.
A teaspoon (or more) of dried Herbes de Provence if you don’t have fresh rosemary, thyme, and oregano
*Nonna’s extra ingredient is to add any parmesan cheese rinds or leftover bits of cheddar/Manchego or whatever tasty cheese you have lying in the larder. And believe me, it does make a delightful difference, albeit a sway away from the purists’ recipes.
Basically, the key here is to chop and drop. You chop the vegetables (I would suggest that you do them in the above order) and put them into a large pot with a good dose of olive oil and about half of that of water. As aubergines are more or less like sponges, it may surprise you just how much oil you need, but I would say maybe 20ml at least and add as you stir to avoid any sticking to the pot, especially the sides of the pot. But don’t add too much though, as the excess oil will sit on the top (it’s lovely mopped up with fresh bread if you do make that mistake, however.)
Another mistake that people make is to add mushrooms. These are definitely not on the shopping list of any good Provençal maman that I know. The texture doesn’t complement the other vegetables at all in my opinion…
Please note that you don’t have to chop everything all together and then pop them in, because the time it takes to chop the courgettes will be enough time needed to let the aubergines enjoy the pot on their own for a bit, and so on. When it comes to the peppers, I tend to pop the stalk inside the fruit then pull them open with my hands, removing the white flesh and the seeds and just tearing them into rough pieces as opposed to measured chopping. Remember this is a peasant dish and isn’t supposed to be perfect, even if I have tasted and seen some pretty amazing Michelin-star versions of the dish which look like masterpieces.
Keep the pot on a low-ish heat once everything is in there and simmer for about an hour, adding the dried herbs before the hour long simmer, or if you’re using fresh herbs, then add these towards the end of the simmer.
Add the cheese, if you wish, around now too, once the main cooking is done, then turn everything off and put the pot lid on - the vegetables will continue to stew beautifully and the aubergine will have all but disappeared to give a great texture to the soupy casserole.
If it’s cool enough, leave the pot out and enjoy this dish much later on, when the flavours have merged further.
Personally I prefer to make this a day before as it is a great ‘second day’ dish (like some mums’ lasagne, or other mums’ stews). It can be eaten cold, but I prefer it warm and with Puy lentils for a super-filling, healthy dish. Be warned though, between the lentils and the 100% veg content, you may bloat a little afterwards, but believe me, you should have the flattest tummy everthe next morning as this is wonderful stuff for the metabolism and gut health in general.
If you have kids who claim to not like vegetables or who don’t/won’t eat their veg, then pureeing some of this up and serving with pasta and grated cheese is a good way to get some vegetables and vitamins into them. My daughter absolutely loves it with pasta and also gorges on it with Puy lentils too. The pureed version also makes a great soup too, if you’re cooking for someone who prefers a bit less obvious roughage.