A (very) long time ago, when I was a student, I ended up working nights in a small French, basement restaurant in Leeson Street in Dublin – La Belle Epoque. I have no recollection of either how I got the job – dishwasher à la kitchen hand and general dogsbody- or retained it for most of the academic year because the restaurant never seemed to have any customers. Jack, one of two full time chefs, said something about the previous owners not having paid their telephone bill so the service was suspended and the new owners – my employers – refused to pay the outstanding charges. So, no phone and hence no reservations and the only customers we used to have were the very occasional punters dropping in on the off chance and, sometimes, the music group Dubliners and that was only because Jack, I think, was one of their mates.
Anyway, among other delights, like unlimited access to ice cream sorbet and gargantuan meals that the chefs would prepare every night – for themselves and the other staff – I fell in love with a simple, rustic-style vegetable dish – ratatouille that always seemed to be available.
Years passed and it slipped, like so many other things, from my memory until recently, travelling along the south shore of the Black Sea, I came across variations on a theme and fell in love with it all over again.
Back home I made it myself for the first time but my wife was aghast at the amount of olive oil I used and I may very well have been a little bit heavy handed there, I admit.
Anyway, jump to the present and, foolishly perhaps, after a sustained and concentrated boozy December, I decided to abstain from all alcohol for the month of January and while I was considering the difficulties that might impose upon me, I thought I might as well go the whole hog and become vegetarian for the month as well, in addition to submitting myself to some form of daily exercise – it is summer here after all and the beach is only a few kilometres from where I live. Anyway, casting around the other day, bored and listless – Day 10 alcohol free – I decided to cheer myself up with a succulent dish of summery vegetables of eggplant, zucchini, capsicum and tomato.
Taking advantage of my wife’s temporary absence I commandeered the kitchen and all the paraphernalia I would need and decided to cook the vegetables separately first, then combine them to cook to a glorious creamy stew.
Extra virgin olive oil,
1 large eggplant, roughly diced,
5 garlic cloves, chopped,
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper,
2 zucchini, sliced into rounds about as thick as a doubloon or a sovereign (!),
2 large onions, diced,
4 red capsicums, roughly diced,
1 kg tomatoes, seeded and chopped,
1 400g can of tomatoes,
Bunch of thyme, parsley and basil, chopped,
1 Tablespoon of sugar
I decided to cook the veg separately. But, as an alternative to frying the eggplant, which would soak up a huge amount of oil, I decided to toss the diced eggplant in a little oil in a plastic bag and then spread it in a single layer under a very hot grill to brown, before tipping the lot into a large bowl.
I heated a generous splash of oil in a heavy-duty casserole dish over a low heat and lightly fried the chopped garlic along with a generous sprig of rosemary. I scooped out 2/3 of the garlic and discarded the rosemary before adding the zucchini and sautéing until tender, then added it to another bowl.
Next up, I returned the pan to the heat and added just a splash more oil, another third of the garlic, and sautéed the onion, and capsicum until tender. Once again I dumped the lot into a dish as before. By this stage I had too much stuff for my casserole dish so I combined all the cooked vegetables into a large pot and added the seeded and chopped tomatoes along with a tin of toms which I whizzed in the blender before simmering the lot gently for about 1½ hours. Remove from the heat, taste for seasoning and stir in the chopped basil. I also used dried thyme and marjoram as I had forgotten to pick up some fresh stuff.
Serve with a soft-boiled poached egg, so the yolk can anoint the delicious vegetables.
As I mentioned, I seem to have made rather a lot but leftover ratatouille has many possibilities – fill a long, crusty bread roll with it or slather it on a slice of sour dough toast. A small amount of ratatouille makes a lush filling for an omelette or scrambled eggs along with some chopped pitted black olives and a little fresh goat’s cheese or coarsely grated Parmesan. Yum-oh!