They say learning something new is good for your brain as well as your self-confidence. In celebration of World Food Day, I decided to learn a new recipe using as many locally or regionally sourced ingredients as I could find. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization hopes to achieve zero hunger by wasting less, eating healthier and adopting a more sustainable lifestyle. The recipe, Ratatouille, is ideal as the ingredients are very simple and inexpensive. Fortunately one of my neighbour’s, whose family lives in South of France, was willing to teach me her family’s version of this classic dish.
Ratatouille was originally a poor man’s dish, prepared by the locals in Nice using vegetables which grow in abundance in the region. Typical vegetables used include eggplant, garlic, marrows, onions and peppers. The ingredients seem to vary depending on the region or family. Some recipes include tomatoes, but for this recipe I was given two basic rules to follow; no tomatoes and no potatoes! Fair enough, I wanted to learn and was curious to see how this differed from the tomato based version.
After listening to the detailed instructions and tasting the fragrant combination of cooked vegetables, I fell in love with the dish. This is a very satisfying vegetarian dish which undoubtedly tastes better the next day or a few days thereafter. The soft, slow cooked onions and garlic give a sweet and earthy flavor that only gets better with time. As someone who cooks with a lot of onion and garlic, I never tire of its simple flavour and ability to elevate a humble dish.
It’s mouthwatering served on its own with crusty bread, with a side of grilled fish or even for breakfast with eggs. An incredibly versatile dish, I highly recommend making more than you need and keeping it in the fridge for quick weekday breakfasts or lunches on the go (waste less, eat healthy!).
Lastly, a few tips to keep in mind when preparing your ratatouille:
1. Chop vegetables into small cubes or thin slices of similar sizes. This reduces the cooking time and makes sure everything is cooked evenly and thoroughly.
2. The garlic and onion should be thinly sliced and cooked through. Taste it before removing it from the pan to make sure there is no raw onion or raw garlic taste left.
3. To reduce the amount of oil you use in the dish, add a splash of water while cooking the baby marrows, eggplant and peppers and to prevent them from sticking on the pan. Make sure all the liquid has evaporated before placing into the casserole dish.
4. Set aside a weekend morning or afternoon to cook this. It’s a long process because you’re cooking each vegetable separately but worth the effort.
5. As a rough estimate, you’re aiming to use equal quantities of vegetables, around 500g per vegetable (except the garlic).
2 large brown onions, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
500g baby marrows, quartered lengthways and thinly sliced
1 medium eggplant, cut into small cubes
2 red peppers, seeded and cut into small cubes
1 yellow pepper, seeded and cut into small cubes
1 whole garlic bulb, peeled and thinly sliced
2 bay leaves, halved
Herbs de Provence
Sea salt and black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons basil paste (recipe below) or a few finely chopped fresh basil leaves
Heat a little oil in a large stainless-steel frying pan and add the onion and ¼ of the garlic. Season with salt, black pepper and ½ a bay leaf. Sauté on medium heat for about 15-20 minutes or until the onions and garlic are soft and cooked through. Add a small pinch of herbs de Provence, mix and keep the onions in a casserole with lid.
Repeat this process for each of the remaining vegetables – baby marrows, eggplant and mixed peppers. After each vegetable is cooked, add it to the casserole and give it a light mix.
At the end, stir through 2 teaspoons of basil paste, pesto or a few finely chopped basil leaves. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Quick basil paste
1 cup of fresh basil leaves
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 – 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Using a pestle and mortar or small food processor, grind or blend all the ingredients together until a paste forms.
Store in a small glass container in the fridge and use as a seasoning in stews, casseroles or pasta sauces.