I hate to admit it, but the Paris portrayed in movies is magical. It’s called the City of Light for a reason, and I don’t know who could leave unaffected by the Eiffel Tower lighting up like a glittering beacon over the city. Well, Gaylord, to be honest. He is Parisian. I don’t think those poor souls can see the appeal. The film that convinced me of Paris’s magic? Yeah… it was Ratatouille. Disney really has me hook, line and sinker. While my own ratatouille without aubergine isn’t identical to the movie’s version, it looks quite similar. We’ve yet to discover cinematic taste technology, although I’m all for it when it comes.
If you haven’t seen the film, I won’t give away any spoilers, but even so, grab a snack or popcorn. Or some ratatouille maybe.
Ratatouille: the movie
Remy is a rat. Yes, I know, great start, but he is a rat that can cook to chef standards (if that helps the situation). He was born in the wrong body and so runs away to Paris to hone his craft. However, you know, he’s a rat. Finding work in a professional kitchen is unlikely, so he befriends young kitchen hand Alfredo. They realise Remy can teach Alfredo how to cook, and even better, can use him like a puppet to become the most acclaimed chef in Paris.
All of these antics take place against a backdrop of the glittering Par-ee and yes, while it shows the quite literal dirty under belly, we’re talking about rats here, there is something so quintessentially French about this gastronomic paradise – it’s the city that is championed as a food capital of the world.
Although, don’t watch the movie with a Parisian. ‘That location doesn’t exist’, ‘there is nowhere with that view in Paris’, you know what I mean.
The film can be credited with putting Parisian cuisine on the map for the millennial and Z generations, and for teaching us all what on earth ratatouille is. I’m sure many of you foodies out there already knew and make a spectacular version yourself, but it was the movie’s ratatouille that put it in a new perspective. The humble Mediterranean ratatouille, a dish of locally sourced French summer vegetables, was given the Hollywood Michelin makeover.
In the film, Remy’s staple ratatouille is transformed from what is described as a ‘peasant dish’ to become delicate and refined layers of finely sliced vegetables, presented with a swirl of jus and a single chive strand balanced on top.
All dishes can have their Hollywood moment. I’m just waiting for stargazy pie to have its turn in the spotlight, but something tells me those blank fish eyes will never make it onto the big screen.
But, let’s go back to the origins of ratatouille, and more importantly, why we should try ratatouille without aubergine.
What is ratatouille?
Before Hollywood and gastronomy got involved, ratatouille was a simple French summer vegetable stew. It is the signature dish of Nice, the largest city in Provence, and celebrates the bounty of vegetables teeming the market stalls. With the Mediterranean on one side, Italy on the other, Provence really was blessed with all the good genes.
To refer back to this ‘peasant food’ comment, made in the Disney movie might I add, this is literally the case. While history indicates that the recipe for Mediterranean ratatouille was first recorded in the 19th century, it was eaten for centuries before that. Just like all foods of peasant origins, these dishes are connected to the land and the people and are shared through word of mouth rather than a fancy schmancy recipe book or restaurant menu. Many of these dishes have been lost to time – see stargazy pie above, although that might be for another reason – but some that celebrate the best the land can provide are eternal.
Ratatouille is a vegan summer stew of the Cote d’Azur, vegetables that are hard to grow in climates that aren’t blisteringly hot – courgette, tomato, peppers, garlic and aubergine, which I will get to in a minute, and seasoned with basil. The vegetables are often cubed and sautéed separately due to their different cooking times before being combined in a large casserole dish and simmered in the oven. The overall impression is that ratatouille is rustic.
Then Pixar came along and brought Thomas Keller, the chef behind the acclaimed French Laundry, with them. Yep, Keller was hired for the making of Ratatouille to not only teach the filmmakers of life in a busy professional kitchen, although any commis chef could have told them that, but to construct the perfect fine dining version of the French peasant stew of yore – Mediterranean ratatouille meets Michelin.
This is where my ratatouille finally comes in! Inspired by my favourite portrayal of Par-ee, and because I can hoover up ratatouille with a baguette any day of the week, I rustled together a ratatouille to look as similar to the Thomas Keller Ratatouille version as I could. Sure, the movie is an animation, and I can freely admit that slicing paper thin slices of vegetables then stacking them is no mean feat, but I am hypnotised by the simplicity of this steamed layered creation of perfectly lined vegetables propped together like dominos.
Which takes me to my particular niche – this is ratatouille without aubergine.
Ratatouille without aubergine
French summer vegetables are packing the market stalls these days and there are at least two types of aubergine – in the UK, aubergines come in ink purple and that’s it. Here, there are some beauties dressed in stripped white and violet looking like bulbous candy canes. We respect the French and their aubergines, heck, Brits call them the French name instead of eggplant. And yet, here I am making a ratatouille without aubergine.
The problem with this vegetable, as is the case for many sad sorry veggies out there, is that there is an issue with texture. Some people just can’t get to grips with an aubergine’s spongey mouth-feel, that when cooked (badly), turns to sloppy mush. This brings to me to announce that apparently aubergine is the UK’s fourth most hated vegetable. It all sounds quite violent to be honest, and I can’t help but feel sorry for those little guys.
I personally love aubergine, but I was fascinated to find very few ratatouille recipes offering the aubergine-free option. So, I decided to make it myself.
So, by combining the tastes of a random chunk of the UK population with the finesse of a Disney Pixar film, my ratatouille was born.
How to make ratatouille à la Ally
Ratatouille without aubergine follows the same structure as traditional ratatouille – chop your vegetables and cook them. However, it’s thanks to Disney’s Ratatouille that the recipe becomes a little sophisticated, a little high and mighty. Remy’s ratatouille in the film starts off with a tomatoey base layer. In a typical Mediterranean ratatouille, this sauce is all the cooked vegetables’ juices, but in this version, the sauce needs to be pre-prepared because the sliced vegetables remain separate:
Layer your dish with a mixture of tomato puree and diced plum tomatoes from a can. Top that with chopped onion and garlic
Then some olive oil, seasoning and water and stir everything together.
Then it’s time to construct your Ikea flat-pack, I mean your ratatouille masterpiece. Chop thin slices of tomato, courgette, red onion and red pepper. Line then up around the circumference of your dish, then a smaller circle in the centre.
Finally slip basil leaves between the vegetable slices, sprinkle with some oregano or herbes de Provence which is particularly fitting considering the origins, and a little extra olive oil. Cover with baking paper and slide the dish into the oven to bake, for the vegetables to soften and all those summery juices to amalgamate.
Serve the ratatouille as a side to steak or lamb or chicken, or with more vegetables, but always have a baguette on hand. I love to eat it with a good sprinkling of cheese, or a smear of ricotta. Little else is needed.
So, as the season draws to a close and I write this during a heatwave, we can mark the moment with this medley of French summer vegetables, the classic ratatouille, even if it is inspired by Disney and doesn’t include aubergine.
Ratatouille without Aubergine
- 22cm/8.5in circular baking dish/pie dish the quantity of ingredients fit this dish perfectly, so if you need to, add or subtract the quantities
- 25 g tomato puree/paste
- 145 g canned plum tomatoes roughly chopped
- 1 small onion finely diced
- 2 large cloves of garlic finely chopped
- 80 ml water ⅓ cup
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1 courgette sliced
- 1 red pepper sliced and each slice cut in half – pepper slices can be much taller than courgette and tomato, so best to ensure they're all roughly the same size
- 3 medium tomatoes sliced
- 1 large red onion sliced and and each slice cut in half
- 2 tsp herbes de Provence or dried oregano
- A small handful of basil leaves
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Preheat the oven to 190°C/170°C fan/375°F. Combine the tomato puree with the chopped plum tomatoes and spread them over the base of your baking dish. Sprinkle with the chopped onion and garlic, the 3 tbsp olive oil and the water. Season generously with salt and stir it all together.
- Start lining up your courgette, pepper, tomato and red onion slices. First, season them all with a little salt. Line them around the circumference of your dish, ideally in a pattern, but if you're tired, then no pressure. Make sure they are all roughly the same height. Pepper slices can be much taller.
- Once you've completed the circuit, fill in the centre by going around the circle again.
- Slip some basil leaves between the vegetable slices, and if you have spare slices of onion or pepper lying around, squeeze them in where you can. Sprinkle the ratatouille with some salt and pepper, the herbes de Provence and a drizzle of olive oil.
- Cover the dish in baking paper – this can be a little tricky. Rip out a circle of baking paper then scrunch it up into a ball then flatten it out. Slide it between the vegetables and the edge of the dish and try to push it down to cover the ratatouille.
- Place the dish in the oven and bake for 45 minutes until all the vegetable slices are tender and soft and the juices are bubbling. Serve with baguette and cheese and extra basil.