Rat-a-tou-ee. It's not that tricky to pronounce, and it's even easier to eat. The term dates back to 18th-century France, when it referred to a meat stew. The dish we know today as ratatouille was not recorded until the 1930s. The word derives from the French verb touiller, meaning to stir or mix. Stirring is certainly part of the production of ratatouille, but it's not really its defining characteristic. It should certainly never be stirred too emphatically - a good ratatouille retains the elegance and freshness of the vegetables that are its building blocks.
The dish originated in Nice, but is popular throughout Provence, where the ingredients grow in abundance. Recipes abound, but all call for eggplant, zucchini, peppers and tomatoes, laced with onions, garlic and basil, and enriched with a fine olive oil. I have come across a recipe that included mushrooms but I believe they would be lost among the other flavours.
Many recipes require each vegetable to be fried separately in olive oil, which could make for a heavy dish, given the quantity of oil required. Most old varieties of eggplant had a bitter taste, so it was common practice to salt the eggplant before cooking to draw out the bitter juices. Virtually all modern varieties have lost this quality and the only advantage of salting them before cooking is to lessen the amount of oil the eggplant absorbs when it's fried. If this appeals to you, it certainly works. A trick I picked up years ago was to place the eggplant in a colander, salt it and leave it for three hours rather than the usual one. Dry it thoroughly before you fry it.
As an alternative to frying, simply toss the diced eggplant in a little oil in a plastic freezer bag and then spread it in a single layer under a very hot grill to brown it. This technique is especially good for dishes requiring sliced eggplant. Some cooks also like to roast the eggplant with similar intent. As for the oil, I find a nice fruity olive oil with
a peppery finish works best.
a peppery finish works best.
I prefer not to hear ratatouille referred to as a stew - it should be a jewel-like dish, with each vegetable retaining its integrity. It's perfect on its own, simply complemented with crunchy baguette. And serve it hot or at room temperature, so the flavours are fully expressed, but never cold. I also recommend making your ratatouille a day in advance to give the flavours a chance to marry.
Lamb forms a happy partnership with ratatouille, as do goat and quail, but eggs are one of my favourite accompaniments, especially soft-boiled, or mollet as they're known in France, so the yolks anoint the delicious vegetables. Barbecued lamb chump chops are particularly good with ratatouille, which brings to mind a dish I enjoyed in the 1970s in Arles at a restaurant called Le Vaccarès. They had marinated lamb rump chops in olive oil, herbes de Provence and garlic, then grilled them over a wood fire and served them with a regional specialty called La Bohémienne (principally eggplant and tomato coulis). Such was the memory of this dish that it made its way some 20 years later onto the opening menu of my Sydney restaurant Bistro Moncur.
Leftover ratatouille has many possibilities - use it to fill a baguette, which can be wrapped in a cloth to take on a picnic perhaps, or serve it as a simple sandwich. A small amount of ratatouille makes a fine filling for an omelette or a topping for scrambled eggs. Mixed with cream and eggs, it works beautifully as a tartlet filling (three eggs to 600ml combined ratatouille and cream), or for crêpes with some chopped pitted black olives and a little fresh goat's cheese or coarsely grated parmesan added to the mix before baking until they're hot. But as a beautiful entrée, ratatouille with soft-boiled eggs is a treat.
I am reminded of a stylish friend whose children couldn't pronounce ratatouille but delighted the family with their title of "rats' tails" for this special Provençal dish.
"This recipe makes six entrée portions with enough left over to serve as a garnish to grilled lamb cutlets or roast leg of lamb. Ratatouille works best when made in a larger quantity, but this recipe also works well halved. It's best made a day ahead to allow the flavours to meld; any leftover will be delicious for another couple of days," says Damien.