Ratatouille, humble heap of vegetables doused in olive oil that you are, you are fantabulous! For starters, I can eat you hot or cold. It's also nice to have a big bowl of you in my fridge for those weeknights when I'm too lazy to cook, or mornings when I need to conjure a lunch quickly before I miss my bus. You are the go-to recipe for veggies a bit past their prime (sadly a frequent sight in my fridge). You are colourful and bright. And finally, when I eat you I feel HEALTHY.
Ratatouille was one of my contributions to the recent Gastronati French night. All you need to make a complete meal of this nice French dish is some crusty bread or couscous and a tall glass of milk. My recipe is a hybrid of methods from three sources: Nigella Lawson's How to Eat, Laura Calder's French Food at Home and the website Provence Beyond.
Prep time: about two hours, including cooking time.
FASTER VERSION: (See below, it's about one hour)
6 to 8 Tbsp olive oil
1 large sweet onion, like Vidalia or Spanish, sliced into half-moons
1 to 3 garlic cloves, however many you wish, minced
4 or 5 tomatoes, skinned and seeded and torn
2 Tbsp tomato paste (optional)
1 red pepper, sliced
3 small zucchinis, sliced into rounds
1 small eggplant, sliced into half-moons
salt and pepper to taste
1 bay leaf
1 tsp each of thyme and parsley
The first thing to do is skin and seed the tomatoes: Score the top and bottom of each tomato with a knife (I make an X). Drop into boiling water for 30 seconds. Remove them with tongs and drop them into a bowl of cold, preferably icy, water. Leave for about 5 to 10 minutes in the fridge, changing the water if it gets too warm. You should now be able to peel the skins off easily with your fingers. Quarter the skinned tomatoes and push out the seeds with your fingers. It's messy, but you want get rid of the water in the tomatoes. Discard the skins, seeds and watery bits and keep the torn tomatoes in a bowl until needed.
Put the oil in a high-sided pan like a stock pot, and heat over medium-high heat (about level 4 or 5 on my electric stove). Add the sliced onions and cook on low-medium heat for 5 to 10 minutes or until translucent.
In those 10 minutes that the onions are cooking, prepare the eggplant. It contains a lot of water that again needs to be drawn out, but you need to give it some time. Slice the eggplant into 1/4- to 1/2-inch-thick rounds. Arrange a single layer of rounds on a big plate lined with a sheet of paper towel. Salt the rounds. Cover with another paper towel. Put down some more eggplant and salt the next round of rounds. Keep doing this until every layer of eggplant slices is salted and stacked between paper towels. Wait 10 to 30 minutes. The paper towels will become waterlogged. Take them off and discard them, but rinse the eggplant rounds and pat dry with a kitchen towel.
Add the garlic to the onion mixture and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the red pepper strips and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the tomatoes. Add the herbs, a pinch of salt and pepper, and the tomato paste if you are using tomatoes that are out of season (not as flavourful). Cook for another 10 to 20 minutes. Take off the heat before you add the zucchini.
During the time the tomato mixture is cooking, get started on the zucchini and eggplant. Fry the zucchini rounds in a frying pan on medium heat (level 6 or 7) until browned on both sides, about two minutes per side. Fry the eggplant on both sides the same way. Add both to the main pot as each batch browns. I usually have two frying pans going for the zuchinni and eggplant rounds, and I do the zucchini first.
Fold all the ingredients carefully into the ratatouille in the stock pot, trying not to puncture the zucchini and eggplant rounds. Take out the bay leaf. Serve hot or cold with crusty bread or couscous.
FASTER VERSION: This version is not as traditional, and the rolled-up tomato skins can irritate, but it's still tasty: Cook everything in one pot and don't take the pot off the heat until you've added all the ingredients, and the last has had time to cook down. Don't skin or seed the tomatoes, just slice into rounds, cut in half and add to the pot. Don't salt and layer the eggplant on a plate to draw the water out. Don't cook the eggplant or zucchini separately, just slice them and toss them in the main pot after the tomatoes have had some time to cook down. This method will shave about an hour off the total time to make this dish.