Vegetable stocks in the Mediterranean must be running dangerously low judging by the multicoloured medleys that pop up in every pub panino, potato and vegetarian pastry parcel these days. In the face of this onslaught of roasted veg, ratatouille seems like a quaint hangover from a bygone age, when goat's cheese was strictly for smelly Frenchies and basil meant boom boom.
A stalwart of the 1980s dinner party, ratatouille always gave the impression of being an ancient peasant dish one might have picked up from some darling ancient peasant neighbours of Peter Mayle, when in fact, according to Alan Davidson's wonderful Oxford Companion to Food, it's a relatively recent creation. The word, which comes from the French touiller, to stir, first pops up in 1877, misspelled, in reference to a meat stew. It is not until the 1930s that it becomes associated with a 'ragout of aubergine with tomatoes, courgettes and sweet pepper'. So authenticity probably isn't something we need to worry about with ratatouille, which is fortunate, given the variety of recipes I come across.
The simple approach
A ragout, of course, suggests something cooked long and slow on the hob – but there is some debate about whether the constituent parts should be cooked together, or separately. Larousse Gastronomique notes that "according to the purists, the different vegetables should be cooked separately, then combined and cooked slowly together until they attain a smooth, creamy consistency." It then, with characteristic Gallic insouciance, goes on to give a recipe in which everything is lumped in together and pedants be damned.
Raymond Blanc agrees, giving a recipe in his Foolproof French Cookery which calls for one to soften 2 diced onions with 4 sprigs of fresh thyme, then add 4 cloves of crushed garlic, 2 large red peppers, 2 large courgettes and 1 medium aubergine, all cut into dice, and cook for 2 minutes. One may then stir in 2tbsp tomato puree, and 4 chopped tomatoes, season, and simmer until the vegetables are tender, and voila – a ratatouille, of sorts. It's nice enough, but no more than the sum of its parts frankly.
The 'authentic' alternative
Ratatouille is clearly a dish which demands greater effort – so I turn to Gui Gedda and Marie-Pierre Moine's Provence Cookery School, which promises to teach me to 'shop, cook and eat like a native' (while paying twice as much for my sun-kissed ingredients). Ratatouille cannot be hurried, the book says sternly, so I should "make plenty and enjoy the leftovers" – which seems sensible advice.
It's true their method is time-consuming; unlike Raymond's casual chop and toss-it-in approach, I must char and skin the peppers, blanch and skin the tomatoes, and employ two pans to cook everything separately, draining each vegetable well after cooking. Finally, the softened onions, peppers, tomatoes, courgettes and aubergines meet in the same pan with 150ml water and are cooked, covered, for 20 minutes along with a bouquet garni. I find the results a bit watery for my taste, so I take off the lid and simmer for another quarter of an hour. It's definitely better than my first attempt; the texture of the vegetables is creamier, and the sauce richer, but it still lacks any real depth of flavour.
Introducing the oven
Although, until recently, most Provençal kitchens are unlikely to have boasted an oven, ratatouille, as we have noted, is not a dish with much history, so Nigel Slater's recipe, which cooks the vegetables separately and then bakes them for 40 minutes with sliced tomatoes, seasoning and thyme, seems like the perfect solution to the insipidness of my previous attempts. This is another style of ratatouille altogether – and more like a very superior roasted vegetable medley for my taste, although it comes into its own cold the next day. But surely ratatouille ought to have some sort of sauce?
The modern version
As anyone who turns to the internet for ratatouille advice will soon discover, the dish's fame has been eclipsed by a film of the same name starring a cartoon rat – but one of the many fan sites helpfully point me in the direction of a new take on the recipe, from American chef Thomas Keller. It was Keller that the Pixar animation team enlisted to help create a realistic restaurant kitchen, and it's his version of the titular recipe which allows the rat to win over France's toughest restaurant critic.
Keller's ratatouille is a reinterpretation of Michel Guerard's deliberately light confit byaldi, which omits the initial frying stage in obedience to the principles of cuisine minceur. Although it takes an entire afternoon to cook, it's actually surprisingly simple, being composed of a piperade-style sauce, slow-cooked in the oven with thinly sliced vegetables. To make this, I roast 1 red and half a yellow pepper in a hot oven for 20 minutes, while gently softening a small, finely diced onion in 2 tbsp olive oil along with 1 tsp minced garlic. I then add 3 peeled, seeded and finely diced tomatoes, along with their juices, half a bay leaf, a sprig of parsley and a sprig of thyme to the pan and allow it all to simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated while I peel and chop the peppers. They go into the piperade to soften, and I thinly slice a small aubergine, 2 small courgettes and 4 tomatoes.
Now for the artistic part. Reserving a tablespoon of the mixture, I spread the rest over the base of a heavy-bottomed 8" skillet (God forgive me, but my Le Creuset omelette pan proves perfect) and then arrange the vegetables in a pleasingly colourful spiral on top, repeating to fill the pan. A final flourish of olive oil, crushed garlic and fresh thyme, and I can tuck a foil lid tightly around it, pop it in a low oven (135C), and start washing up.
Two relaxing hours later, I remove the foil, and put the ratatouille back into the oven uncovered for another half hour, while I mix the remaining piperade with 1tbsp extra virgin olive oil, 1tsp balsamic vinegar, and some thyme to make a vinaigrette. Just before serving I put the ratatouille under a hot grill to crisp up, and then drizzle the vinaigrette around the edge of each elegantly fanned-out portion.
Although my efforts are not quite as beautiful as the rat's, I can see why this dish wowed the cartoon critic: the slightly caramelised vegetables on top are earthily sweet, and those beneath meltingly tender from their long, slow steaming, while the sauce is deep and rich, and jammy rather watery. Much as I hate to admit it, this is one peasant dish which really benefits from tarting up.
Faffing about with spirals and vinaigrettes is a step too far however, so I make another version with slightly chunkier vegetables all tossed together on a base of the piperade with a splash of balsamic vinegar, and it's just as good, and much quicker to assemble – you can chop the vegetables as the sauce is reducing, chuck it all in the dish and then sit back and enjoy a glass or two of rose, which seems much more in the spirit of things.
Although I reject Elizabeth David's suggestion of adding dried coriander to the sauce (too Moroccan), I do sprinkle in a pinch of dried saffron, as recommended by Joel Robuchon, which adds a subtle richness to the end result. And, in an effort to use up my aubergine mountain, I try a version with drained tinned tomatoes instead of fresh, at the behest of Provence Cookery School, a book which clearly understands that not all of us enjoy ripe fruit, even at the height of summer. It's not bad, but it lacks some of the deep savoury flavour that comes from the more acidic fresh tomatoes, so I wouldn't recommend it.
Ratatouille requires ripe vegetables, a liberal hand with the olive oil, and patience: only long, slow cooking will give you the creamy soft vegetables, and intense, almost jammy sauce that sings of the sun. Anything else is just plain vegetable stew.
Felicity's perfect ratatouille
2 red peppers
2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, cut into small dice
4 cloves garlic, minced – 1 kept separate
4 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and cut into small dice, plus juices
3 sprigs of thyme, plus 1tsp thyme leaves
Pinch of saffron
1 tsp balsamic vinegar (optional)
3 courgettes (a mix of yellow and green is good if possible), thinly sliced
1 aubergine, thinly sliced
4 plum tomatoes, thinly sliced
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus extra to serve
1 clove garlic, minced
1. Heat the oven to 230C, cut the peppers in half, removing the seeds and pith, and place them cut-side down on a lightly oiled baking tray. Roast for 20 minutes until the skin has blistered, then remove and leave to cool, turning the oven down to 140C.
2. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil over a low heat, add the onion and cook until very soft, but not browned (about 8 minutes), adding 3 cloves of minced garlic 5 minutes in. Stir in the tomatoes and juices, and the sprigs of thyme, and simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated.
3. Peel the pepper, cut into small dice and add to the pan to soften along with the saffron. Remove the thyme, season to taste, and stir in the vinegar if using.
4. Spread the sauce on the bottom of an oven dish, then arrange the sliced vegetables on top. Mix the remaining clove of garlic with the extra virgin olive oil and thyme leaves, season and sprinkle over the top. Cover tightly with foil, and put in the oven for 2 hours until the vegetables are tender to the point of a knife.
5. Remove the foil, and cook for 30 minutes more – if the top starts to brown, cover loosely with the foil again. If there is any liquid left in the dish after cooking, decant it into a small pan, and reduce over a medium heat, then pour back in. At this point it can be kept for a couple of days.
6. Just before serving, re-heat if desired, then put the ratatouille under a hot grill until lightly browned. Serve with extra virgin olive oil and crusty bread.
Do you like your ratatouille soft and jammy, or fresh-tasting and crunchy – and is it best hot or cold? Is basil its natural partner, or an Italianate abomination? And does ratatouille have any place in a jacket potato?