Sunday, 23 November 2008

Ratatouille (egg free, dairy free, gluten free)

La Belle France. From the champagne vineyards in the North to the stylish beaches of the South. From the cool, dark Jura forests of the East, to the surfing beaches in the West. From all these points and many in between, La France is very, very belle. France does belle very well.

Shall I tell you what France doesn’t do very well? Kitchens. Now steady, let me explain. I don’t mean they don’t do food very well, after all they put the M in the Michelin Star, no what I mean is their domestic kitchens are very, very small. What’s that all about then? Even the large houses tend to have very small places in which to cook. I have scratched my head about this quite a few times. Why, when you have something of a penchant for food snobbery, why, would you construct such tiny kitchens? It just doesn’t make sense to me.

May I indulge in a little stereotyping? If all those French men really are hyper-sexed and giving it to Les dames in a passionate way, every half an hour, you’d think they would have sorted out the kitchen wouldn’t you? That way, the next time the moment arose, there wouldn’t be an issue. Les hommes would be able to slip off their sock-less loafers (oh yes, it’s true), untie their pale pink sweaters from around their necks, sweep the croissants, frogs legs and steaming bowls of hot chocolate out of the way, and give their Aubade-clad ladies a moment of amour on the kitchen table. As it is, in most French kitchens, you’d probably have to balance precariously atop a stack of Le Creuset saucepans in the sink, before you had any hope of getting a frisky frisson going in La Cuisine. And no, I haven’t tried it.

Well, where was I? Oh yes the size of their kitchens. Mi-ni-scule. Mine is no different. The day we moved to France, the removal men and I stared in horror as they stacked box after box marked ‘kitchen’ outside the shoebox-sized space from which I was supposed to feed a family of six. The kitchen has been a source of discontent to me for the last two years. No question of us being able to eat in it, we have to do laps of the house, kitchen to dining room, ferrying plates, cutlery, glasses, jugs, bowls…you get it, don’t you?

When I was away from the house during our summer of fun, I did quite a lot of thinking about the kitchen. After a while, a glimmer of an idea began. As it grew, and shone brighter, my husband rolled his eyes;
‘I can feel another ridiculous purchase coming on’ he groaned.

Oh but he knows me well. As I contemplated the problem, I suddenly thought of the solution. A trolley. The destructive power of four children has taught me that were I to buy a trolley, it would have to be a beast of a trolley. Industrial grade. I went straight to the catering websites. Bingo, there it was. A sturdy one with a kilo load in excess of, oh I don’t know, more than my four children put together. A key selling point that, because I knew damn well they would try trolley surfing as soon as my back was turned. With a click here, a phone call there, a slightly smoking credit card there, and the trolley arrived one sunny Autumn day.

I have never been good at guestimating. I’m a bit hazy on approximate lengths and widths, and when I’d sat in front of my computer looking at the dimensions of my trolley-to-be, I’d stretched my arms apart a bit and thought, ‘yep, it’s about that size by that size, cool! Just the right size’. It was absolutely bloody enormous. When I unpacked the box I thought for a minute there’d been a brief eclipse of the sun. The kids gathered around;
‘Mum, did you buy that?’
Yes I did!’ I countered defiantly, ‘isn’t it great? It’s going to change our lives. Now, I’ll just quickly assemble it and then I’ll make tea’.

Oh the oxymoron. ‘quickly’ and ‘assemble it’. Once upon a few years ago, I used to have much blonder hair. Naturally blonde. Speak slowly. I looked at the diagram for assembling the trolley, and caressed a lock of still-a-bit blonde hair. Now, the IKEA diagrams are a cinch, designed for dullards. But this diagram was not intended for Joe Public, it was a trade diagram. It appeared to require a degree in pure maths. I sat for a while with a blank, educationally sub-normal look on my face and stared at strange screws that were too short. Then I swallowed my pride and called the supplier.

‘Oh, hello, I’m calling about a trolley I’ve bought from you…’.
The kind men in suits couldn’t help me, so they put me through to fabulous Pete in the warehouse. I did my usual trick of only half listening, thinking I’d understood him, feeling very stupid, and hanging up quickly whilst gushing,
‘right, oh yesss, I see, fabulous. Well, thank-you very much Pete, that’s super!’

Another 10 minutes staring at the trolley and the diagram and the screws.
‘Hi, could I speak to Pete please…’
'Pete, hello, look I’m sorry to be so incredibly idiotic but…’
Calm, soothing Perfect Pete.

I’m going to whisper this bit, but another 10 minutes trying to do what Pete had told me.

‘Ummm, it’s me again, I promise this will be the last time I call…’
By the end of the phone call I think I had fallen in love with Patient Pete.

Indeed, I very nearly called him back to propose, when after another half hour of struggling, cursing and child labour, ‘Look, stand there and hold this heavy piece of steel. Not like that, keep it level!’, my trolley finally stood erect on her marvellous, heavy-duty, locking wheels. We stood in awe.
And by then tea was way behind schedule, but it didn’t matter because we had the trolley. Half an hour later I wheeled out my Ratatouille on the magnificent silver bird and we gazed in wonder and delight.

Friends, I can tell you that it has changed my life. The children have adopted a ‘Trolley Person’ rota and they gladly push it to and from the kitchen. It’s a bit hairy watching the 3 year old push it; she can’t see over the top and blindly careers from dining room to kitchen, mowing down anything in her way. They happily stack it with their dirty dishes, I clear it, and they wheel it back to the table all loaded up with breakfast cereal and bowls, ready for the morning. Never has catering for a family of six been so much fun.

I commend this trolley - and the Ratatouille - to you all.

Ratatouille (feeds a family of six)
Now although the Ratatouille is yummy, warming and perfect for these chilly evenings, it's quite hard to make it look sexy in a photo. That's why I have opted for this sort of Harvest Festival photo, enticing you with the fresh and wholesome ingredients in this dish, I do hope that's ok.

The quantities can be increased if you wish, and the liquid measurements are always a bit fluid (oh my, pardon the pun), you may find you need more water as it all simmers down. Or indeed more red wine.

1 large onion
6 cloves garlic (less if you prefer)
olive oil to fry
1 medium aubergine
1 large courgette
1 large green pepper
6-8 big beef tomatoes
tomato puree to taste (I used the best part of a tube)
1-2 tbsps dried herbs (and perhaps a bay leaf and some dried rosemary (as seen in pic), remove the bay leaf before serving)
1 tbsp paprika
200ml red wine
2-500ml water
salt & black pepper to taste
3-4 tbsps balsamic vinegar
1-2 tsps sugar
  • The beauty of Ratatouille is that it is a 'chuck it all in the pan and get on with helping with homework (or assembling trolleys) whilst it cooks' kind of a dish. So start off by chopping the onion and the garlic and throwing it into a large saucepan. Add the olive oil and dried herbs, put it onto a low heat, stir and cover and leave it to sweat whilst you carry on with the rest. But you might have to stir occasionally
  • Chop the courgettes, dice the aubergine, chop the peppers and add it to the sweating onion and garlic mix. Add the paprika and stir
  • Wash the beef tomatoes, then if you are fussy like me, cut out the bit where the stalk grows. Cut the tomatoes in half, and then add them to the pan. Cover, and leave everything to steam and soften for about five minutes, then stir (we'll remove the skins later)
  • Add the water, a few tbsps of tomato puree and the red wine, stir. Put the saucepan lid half on, half off, turn the heat down low and leave to simmer and reduce for 15 minutes or so. My dear French friend Sam (who may never speak to me again after this post) says that a Ratatouille 'ne peut jamais trop cuire', (can never cook for too long), he is so clever
  • Now don't worry, I haven't forgotten about the terrible tomato skins, (one day I may tell you the reason for my tomato skin phobia), what you need to do now is a bit fiddly. Using a knife and fork, fish around in your Ratatouille, and carefully peel off the softened and shrivelled skins. It sounds more fiddly than it is
  • If you think your Ratatouille is looking too sloppy or indeed not sloppy enough, remove the lid (1st case) to allow more liquid to evaporate or (2nd case) add more water
  • Add the balsamic vinegar, then season to taste with the salt and black pepper. Add the sugar to counterbalance the acidity in the tomatoes and tomato puree, et voila, your Ratatouille is ready. Whistle up some rice as an accompaniment, load it all onto your trolley, and trundle through to the dining room
© Pig in the Kitchen, 2008