inspired by Rustique Restaurant & Bistro
Here we are again. Lockdown 2.0.
However it all feels very different this time around, doesn’t it?
The few days before the last national lockdown were stressful. Desperately trying to get an online supermarket delivery, dashing around shops trying to buy what I deemed as essential items, trying to calculate how long we could live off the contents of the freezer.
This time we know what to expect.
The online supermarket shop for example. This time I’m not even bothering. Even if there were slots available, I quickly realised during lockdown that going to the supermarket was an outing. It was a weekly event to plan around. When there’s little else in the calendar for the next month I will look forward to these shopping trips. I don’t want someone else to do them for me.
Essential items. No I’m not talking about loo roll. I’m talking about all those items that you need in your food cupboard. But, be honest, how many items did we really have to live without last time? Sure there was a national yeast shortage. Hence the sourdough baking craze that took off on Instagram. But you could always find bread. We were hardly starving.
The problem with stocking up on essentials, is that would suggest you are sticking to a well known repertoire of dishes. But when, like me you decide to cook a whole load of things you’ve never cooked, and often never heard of before, it’s hard to predict what your must have items are.
Eggs. We got through a lot of eggs last time. So maybe I’ll make sure I’ve got a few more of those. Pasta, or at least pasta flour. That’s a must. Oh and wine. Lots of wine.
This time, rather than trying to hoard things in my freezer, in case we could never leave the house again, the lockdown aim is to eat up all the random things that have ended up in the freezer. An array of homemade stocks, endless portions of braised red cabbage, lots of different types of soup.
As I’ve not had as much time to cook over the past few weeks there’s been more than one occasion where the contents of my veg box has been cooked up into a soup and shoved in the freezer.
I am having to admit that blending and freezing your veg isn’t fighting food waste on it’s own. You need to actually eat it. Otherwise you’re just freezing your waste, delaying the inevitable of throwing it away.
So that’s my lockdown goal. Eat the contents of my freezer. Seems a lot more realistic than my goals first time round (no I still haven’t learned Greek!).
Last week I was trying (and failing) to fit all the veg into the fridge drawer, whilst listening to a Nightcap podcast. Paul and Simon have made a series of episodes reviewing food related films. It was one of those lovely moments when they started talking about Ratatouille at the same moment that I was wondering what to take out of my veg drawer to make it close.
An aubergine, a courgette and a pepper. Ratatouille. I want to make ratatouille.
And not just any ratatouille. The ratatouille that Remy makes in the film. Finely sliced discs of vegetables artfully arranged in beautiful concentric circles.
I love this film. Yes I agree the basic plot is suitably ridiculous. Rats running a kitchen. But the sentiment behind it is so wonderful. Anyone can cook.
And in my mind everyone should cook ratatouille.
What I didn’t realise is the depictions of the professional kitchen in the film is incredibly accurate. When run by human that is. But the hierarchy, the way a kitchen brigade works together. Apparently this is all based on real life. If it’s possible I think I now love this film even more.
During the film the chefs turn their noses up at ratatouille, calling it a peasant dish not fit to be served in a restaurant. Why ever not, I think. But it turns out I might be the only one who thinks that…
If I want to write about it, I need to link it to a restaurant. Where serves ratatouille?? The answer is hardly anywhere. I looked at so many restaurant menus, scanning them from this French classic. Not on a list of side dishes, or as a starter. Even vegan menus didn’t have it.
What’s wrong with ratatouille, I thought? Is it a seasonal thing? Am I just looking at the wrong time of year? This was a dish originally made by peasant farmers when their summer crops were harvested. So maybe it’s only a summer dish.
But trawling through Instagram feeds didn’t give me any joy either. It seems that ratatouille has become a bit unloved in restaurant circles, even in the summer.
I can’t think why. Sure it’s simple, but so is a plate of green beans or a side salad. That doesn’t stop them from appearing on every French bistro menu I could see.
Finally I find Rustique restaurants. Two French bistros in York, and there sitting proudly on the list of side dishes is ratatouille. I’ve not eaten at Rustique, I’ve never even been to York, but the restaurants look lovely. Described as having a busy, vibrant ,upbeat Bistro atmosphere” this sounds like everything I want a restaurant to be right now.
So until they are back to busy, let’s try making ratatouille at home. I’m not sure how upbeat or vibrant the atmosphere in my kitchen is, especially as I’m home alone, but I’ll try my best.
I watch a couple of quick videos of how to make a ratatouille that gets baked in the oven. Traditionally a ratatouille would involve cooking all the ingredients separately before combining them into one dish, but this is a different approach. Less traditional perhaps. But very pretty.
I start by frying onion and garlic in olive oil. I add the pepper, diced quite small, and a teaspoon of sundried tomato paste. In goes a tin of plum tomatoes and I leave it to bubble away for about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile I finely slice a courgette, an aubergine and three tomatoes into circles. I spread them out over the chopping board and sprinkle with salt.
I tear up lots of fresh basil and add it to the tomato sauce. Season with salt and pepper and it’s done.
Once ready to assemble I pat the vegetables dry with kitchen paper. The tomato sauce goes into the pan and spread into an even layer. Then on top goes the circles of veg. Aubergine, courgette, tomato. Aubergine, courgette, tomato.
It’s very therapeutic repeating the three ingredients as you go round and round the pan. As I’m only making ratatouille for one there’s leftover sauce and veg, that I mix together and pop back onto the hob. More for another day.
I decide to use my leftover basil to make a sort of pesto dressing. I mix olive oil, lemon juice, some crushed garlic and pine nuts with the basil and pour it over the top of the vegetables.
The dish gets covered in foil and baked in the oven for 20 minutes. Then I remove the foil and put back in the oven for about another 15 minutes, until all the veg is soft.
I made extra of the herb dressing which I spread on some crusty bread and popped in the oven for the last 10 minutes, to make a sort of herby garlic bread.
As this is dinner for one (they will be a thing of the past for a while once Aidan is not working again) I eat it at my kitchen counter, straight from the pan. Dunking the garlic bread into the sauce.
Not as refined as Remy’s beautiful stack of vegetables, carefully dressed on a plate and delivered by a French waiter in a bow tie. But just as delicious.
Some people might not agree with the statement that anyone can cook. But I guarantee anyone can cook ratatouille. Simple, delicious and worthy of any restaurant menu.
- 1 onion
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 pepper (red or yellow)
- 1 tsp sundried tomato paste
- 1 tin plum tomatoes
- 1 bunch basil
- 1 courgette
- 1 small aubergine
- 3 tomatoes
- 1 tbsp pine nuts
- ½ lemon
- olive oil
- Preheat the oven to 180°C fan.
- Dice the onion and crush one of the garlic cloves. Put a pan on a medium heat and fry the onion and garlic in olvie oil until soft, about 5-10 minutes.
- Dice and add the pepper to the pan along with a teaspoon on sundried tomato paste. Stir and cook for a couple of minutes and then add the tin of plum tomatoes. Break the tomatoes up with the back of the spoon and leave the sauce to simmer and thicken for about 20 minutes. Tear and add in half the basil leaves. Season with salt and pepper.
- Meanwhile slice the aubergine, courgette and tomatoes into thin circles. Lay them out and sprinkle with salt. Leave for 20 minutes and then pat dry with kitchen paper.
- Once the sauce is cooked spoon it into your oven dish. Now add the circles of veg on top, overlapping them to make a repeat pattern. Keep going until there is a layer of veg across the whole dish.
- Make a herb dressing by crushing the remaining garlic clove with a pinch of salt in a pestle and mortar. Add in the pinenuts and lemon juice and crush again before adding in the basil. Once all crushed add in enough olive oil to make it the consistency of a thick dressing (or like a pesto) and season. Spoon it on top of the layers of vegetables.
- Cover the dish in tin foil and cook in the oven for about 20 minutes. Then remove the foil and continue cooking until all the veg is soft. This will take about another 15-20 minutes. Serve with crusty bread, or garlic bread if you want to eat it as a main couse, or serve alongside grilled meat or fish as a side.