I was introduced to ratatouille in the seventies and have to say was not impressed by the rather sloppy vegetable stew that appeared on my plate, and wasn’t impelled to try it again until the other day, when I watched the amazingly good film, ‘Ratatouille’.

The best films about food make you want to go and eat some of it (‘Eat, Drink, Man,Woman’, for instance, should never be watched on an empty stomach), and it’s rather surprising that something cooked by a rat should actually be appetising. He does wash his paws, however, and steam-cleans his family when he conscripts them to help in a crisis.

The ratatouille here - a sophisticated layered version named confit byaldi - was far removed from the one I had all those years ago. The vegetables were well-shaped and beautifully arranged and it really looked as if it might be worth eating, so I did what I always do in these circumstances and went straight to Google. There it was, the very same, beautifully illustrated with full instructions, at Smitten Kitchen: Ratatouille's ratatouille. The reviewer was also surprised to be following a rat’s recipe.

I googled several other versions and found that, although the basic vegetables - courgette, aubergine, pepper, tomatoes and onion – remain the same, what you do with them very much depends on you. You can slice them, chop them. leave them in hunks, add thyme or basil – anything goes, more or less. Possibly the French take a different view, and I’d like to try an ‘authentic’ version, but they’re there and we’re here.

Ratatouille - confit byaldi style - before cooking. Wikimedia Commons.

I forgot the fresh basil, and found I’d run out of olive oil, but a what-the-hell attitude often works quite well. Reading other people’s responses shows there are a lot of folk out there who will experiment and make a recipe their own, either, like me, by not having some of the ingredients or by deliberately putting in something they like. Red wine sounds good. Harissa? Well, why not? The addition of crème fraiche is hardly authentic, but it is rather nice.

Confit byaldi - public domain image from Wikimedia Commons
In my version, you make a tomato puree from fresh tomatoes, half a tin of chopped tomatoes and a little sundried tomato paste, with chopped onion, garlic, a sprinkle of mixed herbs from a jar and seasoning, and spread it over the bottom of a baking dish. You slice the aubergine, courgette and pepper very thinly and arrange them in a pretty pattern on top and drizzle it with oil (I had to use cooking, but olive is obviously better.) Cover the dish and bake for about an hour at 200 degrees. Consistency is up to you – you might like your veg on the crunchy side or you might like to be able to cut it with a spoon, so adjust to suit yourself.

When it’s done, put a few cubes of feta or some dollops of crème fraiche on top (Ray got himself some cranberry Wensleydale!) and either serve it with your own rice or do what we do and pop a packet of Tilda coconut and chili, or lime and coriander, rice in the microwave for a couple of minutes. You haven’t tried Tilda? It’s probably a bit pricey for what it is, but it’s good stuff, comes out right and saves a lot of time. Am I allowed to advertise? All right, then, a packet of flavoured microwaveable rice.

We were expecting something a bit bland, but it was quite a revelation and we shall certainly be having it again. I think probably the flavoured rice gives it a little extra something, so I’d recommend that, along with trying the missing fresh basil. Thyme seems to be favourite, but we find it a bit too strong, especially in a dish of restrained flavours, which is why I used the mixed herbs.

Ratatouille isn’t an in-your-face recipe, but it does have the all-important ingredient – umami. We discovered umami many years ago from, I think, an article in the Science section of the Guardian, and it’s only now beginning to creep into the national conscousness. Umami really just means ‘flavour’ and it’s often lacking in vegetarian food. It shouldn’t be, because it’s chiefly supplied by tomato and cheese with a little salt, which explains the great popularity of pizza. I have suffered quite a lot of bland vegetarian food over the years because it didn’t have umami.

All in all, much nicer and quicker to make than I’d anticipated, very healthy, and, without the cheese, suitable for vegetarians and vegans.

If you want to be fussy, it’s pronounced ‘rat-a-twee-uh’, not ‘rat-a-tooey’.

Oh, and do watch the film next time it’s on telly.

Tried another version using the fresh basil and feta that we didn’t have the frits time, and experimenting with a dollop of Patak’s Universal Brinjal Pickle in with the tomatoes. Brinjal pickle is wonderful stuff and we put it in just about everything. It’s not too strong, but it delivers terrific umami. Having been to Aldi, we tried their frozen Mediterranean veg, which worked very well, and their lemon and coriander couscous, which was even better than the rice. I put some sliced aubergine and pepper on top to make it look more authentic and drizzled olive oil over it. The result - pictured above - was indescribably wondrous.

See also Ratatouille at Vie Hebdomadaires.

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