Ideally, you'll need to slice and salt the aubergines, in a perfect ratatouille world. (Sometimes, the world isn't perfect, and living with that is part of maturity, and part of ratatouille.) Salted aubergine is mellow, unsalted is bitter and tart; both are delightful. French cooking tends to salted mellow aubergine; Greek and Turkish cooking to the tart. This is French. To salt, slice the aubergine sideways into chunks just under an inch thick (that's about 2cm to metric folk), spread them out on a board, and scatter salt liberally over them. Leave them be. If possible, halfway through, turn them and salt the other side. When you come back, they will be seeping juice in a magical way. It's quite impossible to say how long this will take. In Stellenbosch, in summer, half an hour; in an English winter, three hours. These days I try to get them salted at least a couple hours before I cook ratatouille, but if I don't, well, that happens. If you can, though, slice and salt them the moment you get in from / stop work.
(this is for a whopping great ratatouille; feel free to divide by x and round off - it's very forgiving of approximations)
- 3 glistening purple-black aubergines
- 6 sheeny-matt courgettes (baby marrow, my South African friends), chopped into goodly inch-thick rounds (that's roughly a thumb / 2-3 cm, for the same)
- 8 colourful peppers (I lean towards red and green, for this, but as you will / the Pepper gods allow), chopped into wide strips (here's how to chop peppers)
- 2 onions, peeled and chopped in half, then each half into lengthwise quarters (long mandalas of onion)
- 2 cloves of garlic (surprisingly little, especially in my kitchen, but trust me here), finely chopped / crushed
- 2 tins / boxes of chopped tomatoes
- 2 glasses of white wine (about half a bottle)
- olive oil
Summary: you fry all the veg, then move it out and fry the garlic, add the tomato and white wine, and pop the veg back in for a good long slow simmer of about 45 minutes if not longer. In practice, a big ratatouille like this will defying the frying-space of even the largest pot, so I fry the veg in batches and pour each batch into a large bowl until it goes back in the juice for the simmer. You need a LARGE POT. This is my order (as in sequence, not command)...
- Courgettes & onions: go in first, fry until they're golden or slightly seared, tip into the waiting bowl
- Peppers: the pot's hotter by now and I always like peppers to have a bit of a sear to their skins, tip into the bowl
- While that was happening, rinse off the aubergines and don't bother to dry them - those babies soak up oil like nobody's business, so having a bit of water in them is just as well. Quarter them, throw them in to the now really-rather-hot pot, and pay attention, because they're Voted Most Likely To Stick. Give them a bit of extra oil. Don't give them as much as they want: they're like toddlers with sweets, they'll gobble up everything they're given and then spit it back out when they're bored. (That's not just a metaphor: they absorb lots of oil but once cooked, and on a slow heat, will release it again.)
- Open the boxes / tins of tomatoes to have ready, throw a splash more oil in the pot (the aubergines ate it all), put the heat right down (that pot is SO HOT right now) and chuck in the garlic. Give it a quick swirl round to loosen the clumps and throw in the tomatoes. You don't want either the garlic or the tomatoes to cook too hot, so move speedily here. Swirl around with a spoon, thrown in the two glasses of white wine, and stir. There is a school of thought that you wouldn't cook with wine you wouldn't drink. That school of thought is MAD. Perhaps if you're cheffing, not cooking, but a) we're cooking here, not cheffing, and b) who boils wine that they would drink? See above; Mad.
- Put all the veg back in and give it a stir round. Don't worry that the liquid doesn't remotely cover the veg: the veg still has loads of liquid in it yet to come out. Cover the pot, put it on a low heat (I move my biggest pot to my second smallest ring), and leave it to oh-so-gently simmer. One of those perfect, contemplative, just-breaking-the-surface simmers. Stir it after about half an hour or 45 minutes, but don't stir it loads or you'll break the veg into soup.
- The simmer wants minimum 30 minutes (if you cut the aubergines quite a bit smaller) and up to an hour and a half. Depends on timing, really. On average, 45 minutes. Sometimes I serve that evening's dinner from the simmering pot and let the rest simmer and develop longer. While it's cooking, you can listen to Radio 4, tidy the living room, have a glass of wine, write the raw draft of a poem or make minute, significant adjustments to a current poem.
Piping hot is a waste, here. Let it be warm, but not scorchy, not even hot hot. All those lovely flavours come out so much better if it's not boiling. Throw in a bit more olive oil. I don't salt ratatouille, even though I salt everything else whether it moves or doesn't. Put it in a wide bowl, get a spoon. Find something truly comforting, like Lark Rise to Candleford or The Paradise. Even Gilmore Girls or The Good Wife will do, in a pinch. Sit down, in the now-tidy living room, with a bowlful of healthful, gentle, flavoursome ratatouille. Wonder if you should grate cheese on top. Decide against cheese. Hear the opening music that sets you into pleasurable anticipation. This is peaceful; this is good.