Austerity Bites

Austerity Bites – Ratatouille

There’s something about so-called ‘peasant food’ that makes it far tastier than haute cuisine.  It’s comforting and wholesome and earthy. Most of my favourites dishes are, essentially, peasant meals. Like ratatouille.

Now, I won’t lie to you. This dish takes a bit of time to prepare, but it’s worth it. Due to the time it takes to prepare, it’s a lovely one to make with your family over the course of an hour on a lazy weekend afternoon. The most time-consuming part is the tomato sauce, but making it from scratch is well worth the effort.  This tomato sauce is a great basic sauce – perfect for slopping on pizza (thicken it up with a bit of tomato puree for that purpose, if needs be), running through pasta, using as a dip or crusty bread, or – as in this case – providing the base for a stew.  In fact, this sauce is good enough to put in an attractive pot (or a kilner jar) and bring it (with or without a baguette) to a dinner party. (We all have those weeks when the budget doesn’t stretch to a bottle of wine.)

This week – with tomatoes and courgettes both on special offer in Aldi – is the perfect week to make big quantities of this recipe. It freezes well and, in spite of (or maybe because of!) its humble origins, I think it makes a lovely meal for sharing with lovely friends.

Start with the tomato sauce:

800g Tomatoes (fresh or tinned)

10 cloves (Approximately 1 Bulb) of Garlic

3 Tablespoons of Dried Herbs OR 8-10 Leaves of Fresh Herbs

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Salt & Freshly Ground Pepper

If you’re starting with fresh tomatoes, slip them out of their skins: With a sharp knife, cut an ‘x’ on the bottom (the opposite side to where they were attached to the vine) and pop them into a bowl of boiling water. Leave for about 30 seconds, then tip them out of the hot water and into cold. The skins should come away easily from the fruit.

Chop the tomatoes, removing the hard white membranes.

If you’re starting with tinned tomatoes, open the cans 🙂

Peel and bash (or press) the garlic.

Pour enough of the olive oil into a medium-sized pot to cover the bottom. The fruitier the oil you have, the better.

Heat the oil over a medium heat.

Turn the heat to medium-low and add the garlic.

Saute the garlic until it turns golden. Garlic burns really easily, so be vigilant here! If you’re worried that your pot may be too hot, take it off the stove and let the residual heat in the pot cook the garlic.

When the garlic is golden, add the tomatoes, the salt, pepper and herbs. I know it may seem like a lot of herbs, but please be generous with them. Forget your little dainty spoonfuls of dried herbs and add a good handful. Trust me on this! I use a selection of whatever is in the kitchen – or a pre-mixed Herbs de Provence . If I have a live plant knocking about, I’ll add fresh leaves – maybe 4 basil leaves, 4 sage leaves and 20 rosemary spines.

Add a sprinkle of salt and a really good grinding (about a teaspoon) of pepper.

Turn the heat up until the sauce is just under the boil, then reduce the heat to low and leave the it alone – partially covered – for about 40 minutes.

At the end, you can add a glug (maybe 3 tablespoons)  of red wine if you happen to have a bottle open, or a splash (about 2 teaspoons) of balsamic vinegar. (Don’t despair if you find you’ve been too heavy-handed with the vinegar – a teaspoon of sugar, dissolved into the sauce should right things)

Tomato Sauce

While the sauce is cooking, prepare the veg. You’ll need:

1 Medium Sized Onion

1 Aubergine

2 Courgettes

1 Bell Pepper

Olive Oil

Salt & Pepper to taste

I salt aubergines and courgettes before I use them. This removes excess water and ensures they don’t disintegrate in the stew.  Top and tail the vegetables, cut them into discs and pop the disks into a plastic sieve or colander (metal, salt and water not being the best combination). Shake a generous amount of salt over the eggplant (you can use cheap salt like Saxa for this job!). Leave it to drain over a bowl for about half an hour. Then (and I know this seems counter-intuitive) rinse the salt off under running water and gently squeeze the discs against the sides of the sieve to get all the water out. If you like, you can pat the discs dry in kitchen paper or a tea towel.

Sometimes, I manage to time it so my sauce is ready at about the same time as my vegetables are salted, but that’s only when I’m pretending to be really efficient.

Anyway, while the veg are salting, peel and roughly chop the onion.

Cut the pepper into bite-sized chunks.

Halve the bigger aubergine and courgette discs, so they are roughly the same size as the peppers.

Get a big pot (possibly your biggest) and, over a medium heat, warm enough olive oil to cover the bottom.

Add the onion and cook for about 10 minutes.

Add the aubergine and courgette to the pot and cook, stirring, for about 10 minutes, until they are slightly coloured.

Add the bell peppers and, still stirring, cook the lot for about another 5 minutes, until the peppers start to colour as well.

Tip in the tomato sauce and cook the lot, partially-covered, over a gentle, medium-low heat for 20 minutes.  A few more herbs won’t do it any harm if you fancy lobbing them in.

Season with salt and pepper and serve with plenty of grated cheese.

We have this with rice, quinoa, pasta or – if we’re feeling Continental – fresh baguette.

Pot of Ratatouile

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