There are none so blind as those who will not see. For some time I had wondered about the origins of ratatouille, and then I looked at the flourishing vegetable garden and saw tomatoes blooming, and chillies and peppers blushing, and garlic popping from the ground, and zucchini taking over, and finally, surveying it all rather imperiously, the purple flowers and luscious purple fruit of the eggplant. Throw them all together with a little onion and you have ratatouille.

It is a dish which eased its way onto the menus of classy restaurants a few years back, as the chorus to a less than substantial main course. The clever thinking being that if the main event is a little dodgy you can win them with a reasonably cheap, easy to make, easy to serve vegetable stew with an exotic name.

Good thinking it was, too. Ratatouille has that fine ability to mix and match with just about anything, yet the dish still stands firm on its own. There are no prima donnas in well-made ratatouille. Nothing stands out; all stand equal, but apart. But first among equals, the prime minister of the party, must be the eggplant. If Gough Whitlam had been a vegetable, I am sure he would have been an eggplant, although of course he would have taken the French name and been known as an aubergine.

The eggplant is one of those vegetables that grandmothers, and less-than-modern mothers know little about, even though it has been around since Adam was in short pants. It is probably not greatly favoured because it has never been really cheap, and is never that easy to prepare — in the sense that beans and peas and cauliflower and potatoes are. There’s this salting business, and the skin, and the old bogey of the cauli you know is better than the eggplant you don’t.

You usually have to salt eggplants to draw some of the excess liquid and bitterness out. Eggplants also sop up oil from any part of the pan.

None of this is a worry with ratatouille. The more the eggplant soaks up the better, which is why the stew, like all stews I guess, is better the day after it has been cooked. Give the boys and girls time to get to know each other. Then you can be sure you are voting for a winner.

The traditionalists prefer to cook each of the ingredients in separate pans, so that each is cooked just the right amount. I can’t see the need for that. A little care, and a lot of observation, and you achieve the same result. Any minor imperfection is worth not cleaning four extra pans.

2–3 middle-sized onions, sliced

6 Roma tomatoes, peeled and chopped roughly

equal volumes of red peppers, eggplant and zucchini, all chopped into walnut-sized pieces, skin on

2 cloves garlic, sliced finely

2 hot chillies, chopped finely

bunch of basil

handful of olives, pips removed (optional)

2 teaspoons salt

plenty of black pepper

best olive oil for the plate


Cook the onions slowly in a little olive oil, stirring so they stew and soften, rather than fry. You might need to add water if they get a little cantankerous in the pan. Let them stew away for about 15 minutes before you add the tomatoes and peppers.


Cook slowly, adding the garlic and chillies, until the tomatoes are quite soft and the peppers are soft, but still holding their shape. Add the eggplant and salt heavily.


Allow mixture to stew away for a few minutes on a low heat, then cover and cook on a low heat for another 15 minutes, checking to make sure there is no burning. When all the vegetables have softened, but the pepper and eggplants retain their shape, add the zucchini.


Stir about and then cook, covered, for another 10 minutes, until the zucchini is soft to the knife. Add the basil and the olives, and mix through gently. Adjust for seasoning (salt). Twist the pepper mill around and around, and leave, covered, off the heat until it cools.


Re-heat gently to serve, swirling some olive oil about as it goes to the plate. You can serve the ratatouille in a variety of ways: cold, in a sandwich, warm as a vegetable, or hot with pasta. Serve it hot, peppered anew, and covered with large slivers of Parmesan.


Once you’ve done it on the stove, do it in the microwave; the same rules apply, but it doesn’t make too much difference, either in flavour or in time.

WINE: Good French chablis has a knack of cutting through the oil that eggplant tends to soak up. French chablis is not everyone’s cup ot tea — in taste or pocket — but it’s worth a treat.