Sophie Tevlin revels in nostalgia for a happier, simpler time, before the cruel and confusing vagaries of adulthood. Also there’s a recipe.
My mum, through no fault of her own, is English. She is also – and hold your scepticism - an incredible cook. We came home from school to mouth-watering scents wafting from our tiny kitchen (most of the time – Mum is an adventurous soul, and occasionally a culinary 'experiment' could go horribly wrong.) Gratin dauphinoise - thinly sliced waxy potatoes baked in cream and butter and garlic. Homemade lasagne with a hint of nutmeg in the béchamel. A delicious British speciality of juicy sausages encased in Yorkshire pudding served with green peas and onion gravy, that rejoices in the deeply weird name 'toad-in-the-hole'. Carbonara with cream and garlic added, a defiance of tradition that ensured we had to repel descending flocks of irate Italians every other month. But my favourite? Ratatouille. Her ratatouille is out of this world. One sniff of the deep, rich, and complex aroma of this herby, tomatoey vegetable stew and I am transported right back to my childhood. Yes, that’s right! I am the real-life Anton Ego! Except I am not bitter, difficult to please, or portrayed by Peter O’Toole in a children’s Disney classic. And now I will impart to you the secrets of this Proustian stew.
You will need: about half a mug of olive oil, preferably extra virgin. The olive oil is a big part of the flavour, and any other cooking oil won’t be the same, so use the nicest you have. It goes stale, anyway. (Did you know that? I didn’t know that. I saw it on Salt Fat Acid Heat. The fresher the olive oil, the better it is. I always assumed it was like wine or whiskey and matured as it got older, but apparently not. Fancy that.) Two big white onions or three small ones. Two red peppers and one yellow pepper (no green peppers please, they’re underripe and bitter about it). One or two courgettes, depending on the size of courgette and preference of the chef. One aubergine. One bulb of garlic. Two tins of peeled plum tomatoes. Two tablespoons of tomato puree. Two teaspoons of coriander seeds. Salt and pepper. Also a chopping board, your best knife, and your biggest pot. A wide-bottomed one is best, otherwise you’ll be stirring it all the time to make sure everything cooks evenly.
The quantities I’ve given here are enough for about four people, my attitude when it comes to stews being: go big or go home. In my mind there’s no point making something that calls for half a courgette when I know its neglected other half will be skulking around my fridge, guilt-tripping me as it slowly moulders into compost. Ratatouille, like lasagne or beef stew, is one of those messianic dishes that tastes even better on the second or third day and makes as amicable a pairing with pasta and with rice as it does with cheesy potatoes. Add chillies and eggs and you have shakshuka for breakfast! But feel free to halve the recipe if you have limited fridge space or no big pots.
Heat the olive oil in the pot on a medium-low heat, and add the onions (sliced into crescents), the peppers (deseeded and cut into long thin strips), the courgette (cut into thick circles) and the aubergine (cut into chunks). Squash the garlic flat with the blade of your big knife, and take the skin off. Then mince it up with your knife and add it to the pot. Or don’t, and add it in crushed but whole, like my battered faith in humanity. It is entirely up to you: if you’re full of beans and raring to show off your knife skills, have at it! If you’re feeling a bit low-energy, that’s fine too. Ratatouille is a simple and forgiving dish to cook, and since it’s a nostalgia thing for me I tend to make it when I’m in the kind of mood that calls for heavy blankets and a rewatch of Paddington 2.
Sometimes you are not in the humour to faff around being Gordon Ramsay and you just want to eat something with vegetables in. This is good advice for all cooking. Don’t worry too much about the recipe. Remember you are the cook, and you will be the one eating this, not me (unless you have invited me round to dinner, in which case I would like to stress that I am always appreciative of free home cooking, and can be easily reached at firstname.lastname@example.org - Thursdays suit me best, if you are free.)
Stew the vegetables in the olive oil for about twenty-five minutes, until they are soft but not mushy, then add your coriander seeds (optional, but I like ‘em – there’s a herby, almost floral zing to them that goes well with vegetables. Crush them with the blade of your knife if you don’t have a spice grinder.) Swish everything around and add the tinned tomatoes and tomato puree, then season with salt and pepper and stew for another twenty-five minutes or so until the sauce tastes deep and rich. If you have any basil leaves to hand, tear them up, inhale the lovely fragrance, and add to the stew just before serving. Consume voraciously with your carbohydrate of choice. Bon appétit.