A Provençal vegetable stew best served at room temperature, ratatouille should be a very basic preparation and not over-refined. Bad variations (vegetables diced too small, too much tomato, using dried herbs and so on) often debase one of the finest combinations of Mediterranean flavours.
It is very important to use the best extra virgin olive oil and to cook all the different vegetables separately, combining them only at the last moment The aubergines and courgettes must be very fresh - when they have spent too long on the shelf they go bitter. Some texts advise salting them to remove bitterness, but experience suggests that all this delivers is old, salty and bitter vegetables.
Making a first class ratatouille takes time - there are no short cuts. It is vital not to fry the ingredients quickly, but to stew them gently and avoid overcooking. The ratatouille improves after a day's rest to allow the flavours to amalgamate.
Alternatively, ratatouille while still hot is delicious mixed with an equal quantity of fusili or macaroni (or any other robust dried pasta). Simply cook the pasta, drain and toss it with the ratatouille while it is still warm. Dress with torn basil to serve.
Prepare the vegetables, keeping each vegetable separate: only peel the onion and garlic, but top and tail the aubergines and courgettes. Destalk and deseed the peppers. Scald the tomatoes in a bowl of boiling water for 60 seconds, then refresh, peel and deseed. Cut all the vegetables into bite-sized chunks. (If using baby courgettes, leave them whole.)
Strip the rosemary and thyme leaves from their twigs and chop the leaves.
Put about 3 tablespoons of olive oil into a large heavy pan, set over a medium heat and cook the onions, stirring. They must not colour. As they soften and go translucent, add the garlic and cook for another 2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the contents of the pan to a colander placed over a bowl.
Add another splash of olive oil to the pan, turn up the heat to medium and sauté the peppers. They need to be cooked until slightly brown, not collapsing but with some residual bite. When done, transfer to the colander. Repeat with the aubergines, then finally the courgettes.
Add the chopped herbs to the vegetables. Season and return all the cooked vegetables to the pan, adding any remaining oil and the juices that have drained into the bowl. Stew together for 5 minutes, stirring. Remove from the heat and stir in the uncooked diced tomato. This will cook slightly in the hot vegetables.
If possible, let the ratatouille cool and then refrigerate overnight to allow the flavours to amalgamate. Allow to return to room temperature before serving. Always check the seasoning at room temperature.
This dish can also be warmed gently to be served hot with grilled meat or fish.
Just before bringing the ratatouille to the table, tear over the basil leaves.
© 1993 Alastair Little and Richard Whittington estate. All rights reserved.