For the last two years of our courtship, Mrs J has been asking me very nicely to make her a ratatouille. Some childhood memory of a baked potato hot from a food van, piled high with soft, veg-laden ratatouille, stirs within her a bone-deep blissful comfort. Oblivious to the emotional sentiment, I would simply mutter something about ‘not being a frigging cafe’, and make something else.
The truth is, I had never made a ratatouille before. My knowledge of it stemmed entirely from a Pixar movie starring a small excitable animated rat, and an indeterminable can of mush I was given at the food bank once that was so inexorably unappetising, I never wanted to see it or its ilk again.
And then one day a few weeks ago, with the holy triumvirate of courgette, aubergine and pepper in the fridge, I decided to surprise her. I dug out my French cookery books – French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David, The Little Paris Kitchen by Rachel Khoo, and Elisabeth Luard’s Classic French Cooking, all liberated from various thrift and secondhand stores over the years, added Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook, and set to work. This is how I work when trying something new; I compare and contrast three or four recipes, picking out the fundamentals and common denominators, then weaving in what I think will be the best bits from each, to my own tastes and intuition. Most of the time, it works a charm.
My only amendment to the traditional recipes is a reduction in the amount of oil used – some of the classic recipes insist on two cups of oil, and my constitution just wouldn’t tolerate that at all, never mind my wallet, so I have used a far more modest amount.
And so, I popped a jacket potato in the oven, and this on the hob, and Mrs J was absolutely, utterly delighted with it. So delighted in fact, I made it twice in the same week, just for the sheer joy of it, and to assuage my guilt that it had taken me so long to finally give in to what is, by all accounts, a fairly reasonable request. To make this even simpler, you can use frozen onions and peppers, both of which work absolutely fine.
Serves 4 from 69p each. (This post is not sponsored; I provide links to the ingredients that I use so you can see how I calculate my recipe costs, and I may earn a small commission if you click the links or purchase any ingredients.)
2 large onions, 18p
6 cloves of garlic, 10p
1 pepper – red, orange or yellow work best, but green will do, 33p
1 tbsp light cooking oil, 2p
Salt and pepper, to season
1 large aubergine, 70p
2 courgettes, 80p
2 x 400g cans of chopped tomatoes, 56p
2 tsp white vinegar, <1p
A pinch of sugar, <1p
2 tsp mixed dried herbs, 4p
First peel and finely slice your onion, and toss into a large, nonstick pan. Peel your garlic cloves and quarter them lengthways, and add to the pan. Slice the pepper, discarding any clumps of seeds – I’m not too meticulous about this to be honest, but some people prefer not to have them in, so do what you feel is best. Measure in the oil, and season with a little salt and pepper, and bring to a low heat. Cook for five minutes, stirring gently, to start to soften.
Dice your aubergine and courgettes and add to the pan, and quickly pour over the chopped tomatoes to stop them from browning as they are exposed to the air. Aubergines turn very quickly once chopped; they’re fine to use once they start to discolour, they just don’t look brilliant. Add the vinegar, sugar and herbs, and turn up the heat.
(The four cookery writers above all differ wildly on the use of herbs – Luard uses rosemary and thyme, David has coriander seeds, basil and parsley, Raven uses fresh coriander, and Khoo uses thyme, so I have opted for mixed dried herbs – a blend of thyme, marjoram, oregano, parsley, sage and basil – the best of all of them, with a few little extras, just because.)
Cook on a medium heat, stirring, for 30 minutes, until the veg is soft but not mushy, and the liquid reduced and thickened and glossy. Season with a little extra salt and pepper to taste. Can be served hot or cold, and is one of those dishes that improves with a rest and a reheat, so it will keep well in the fridge for two days, or if cooled completely, can be frozen for up to three months.
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All text copyright Jack Monroe.