In respect of creating the classic Provençal dish of ratatouille, the monumental culinary reference book, Larousse Gastronomique states that ‘according to the purists, the differenut vegetables should be cooked separately, then combined and cooked slowly together until they attain a smooth, creamy consistency’. I couldn’t agree more. For so many years, I had to endure so many unpleasantly chunky and undercooked versions that I gave it up completely. After all, you’ve got to be careful with watery vegetables such as aubergines and courgettes because, unless they’re cooked well, you will simply end up with a slimy, tasteless mess. Which is a shame because, if you get it right – usually involving lashings of extra-virgin olive oil and a good deal of time – you can be sure of your entry to culinary heaven. This version requires some stove-top cooking followed by a fairly long time in the oven as each ingredient slowly mingles with the other; the final addition of the zest and juice of a beautiful fresh lemon lifts the dish to another level. Eaten warm or at room temperature alongside freshly baked salty bread or a bowl of gently spiced fluffy couscous, this is the kind comfort food I love because it reminds me of my Mother and the dozens of afternoons spent around a scrubbed pine table slowly slicing vegetables, taking in the aromas and the warmth of the domestic kitchen. The kind of endless days when life seems so unutterably lovely. As an aside, although this dish is commonly associated with Provence, specifically, Nice, similar versions appear all over the Mediterranean such as pisto (Castilian-Manchego, Spain), tombet (Majorcan), caponata and ciambotta (Sicily, Italy), briám and tourloú (Greek), and şakşuka and türlü (Turkish).
2 red peppers
6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp dried oregano
Knob of butter
2 medium onions, sliced into half moons
2 medium aubergines, thinly sliced
3 sprigs of fresh thyme
4 cloves garlic, finely sliced
4 ripe plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded and sliced lengthways into quarters
A pinch of saffron
1 tbsp sherry vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to your taste
3 medium courgettes, thinly sliced
1 lemon, zested and juiced
Fresh basil, for garnishing
Dried oregano, for garnishing (optional)
How I make it
Heat an oven to 200C
Remove the seeds and membranes from the peppers and cut lengthways into eighths. Place on a baking tray, drizzle with 2 tbsp of the olive oil and the dried oregano. Place the tray into the oven and allow the peppers to roast for 25 minutes. When cooked through, remove from the oven and set aside.
Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, add 2 tbsp of the olive oil and the butter. When the butter has melted, add the onions and a pinch of salt. Partially cover, turn down the heat and allow them to slowly melt for around 20 minutes. Add the thyme and garlic, and cook for a further five minutes.
Place the aubergine slices in a colander adding a generous sprinkle of sea salt between each layer. Set aside.
Add the tomatoes, saffron and vinegar to the onion mixture and allow the sauce to reduce for a few minutes. Transfer everything to a large roasting tin, remove the thyme, add the roasted red peppers, season to your taste and set aside.
Wipe the pan clean, return to the heat and add the remaining 2 tbsp olive oil. Fry the slices of aubergine and courgette in batches until they are all golden on both sides – you will need to add more olive oil as you go – placing each slice on a plate covered with kitchen paper to absorb any excess oil.
Finally, turn down the oven to 180 degrees. Pile the roasted peppers, aubergine and courgette slices on top of the tomato sauce, drizzle with more olive oil, scatter with sea salt and pepper and place the roasting tin back in the oven for an hour (cover with foil if the vegetables begin to burn).
When everything is cooked, add the zest and juice of the lemon, season to your taste and garnish with fresh basil leaves, oregano (if using) and a drizzle of olive oil. This is great served alongside my Essaouira couscous with saffron, mint and lemon and a bowl of lightly dressed leaves.