Sunshine on a plate, and a dish that always conjures up memories of Provence for me. Where actually I became a bit obsessed with it, making a point of trying it at every restaurant I visited, in some sort of pointless bid to find the ‘ultimate’ ratatouille. I absolutely love the stuff – served barely warm it’s the perfect accompaniment to grilled meat from the barbecue, it’s substantial enough to be a lunch in its own right with just some pitta bread or couscous on the side, and it’s absolutely delicious eaten straight from the fridge with a tablespoon.
But the problem with an authentic home-prepared ratatouille for the calorie counter is that all those lovely, healthy vegetables are supposed to be stewed in olive oil, and as we all know, oil of any kind sends the calorie count skyrocketing – whether it’s extra virgin olive oil, first cold pressed from a single estate, or supermarket lard.
Stewed in oil then – and that’s after you’ve fried each of the vegetables separately. And we haven’t even mentioned the aubergines…
Aubergines of course being basically sponges, with a Tardis-like ability to soak up positively bucketfuls of oil. But fail to fry them off properly before combining with the other ingredients, and you’ll end up with the sadly all-too-familiar hallmark of a bad ratatouille – rubbery aubergines, an eating experience almost as disgusting as undercooked potato.
Now here’s a tip for frying-off aubergine when the diet’s over and you return to slightly more normal cooking. You’ll hear over and over again from TV chefs on Lorraine and whatnot that these days there’s no need to salt aubergines to remove their juices before cooking. This is nonsense. There is absolutely no doubt that salting them for 30 mins or so in a colander with a weighted plate on top turns those little sponges into something more akin to wet dishrags, with far less of a predilection for drinking neat oil.
But for now that’s irrelevant because much more radical measures are needed for a low calorie ratatouille. So what I do is coat the bottom of a roasting tin with 1-calorie spray oil, preheat it in the oven, then lay the aubergine slices in and spray them over with an oil mister. It’s important there’s only one layer so you might need to do a couple of tins or batches. Then shove them in the oven at 180°C for about 20 minutes or so – as you can see from the picture, they’re going to come out looking pretty sorry for themselves, but you’d never know it once they’re combined with the other ratatouille ingredients. Perfectly cooked aubergines in fact – and virtually no oil used in the process. Don’t salt them first though – or they’ll end up like crisps.
The rest of the recipe is pretty straightforward, not at all authentic in its method I suppose, but I assure you it results in absolutely gorgeous ratatouille.
One more thing. At the end you need to add back some olive oil to the mix in a controlled way. This might sound counter-intuitive but it’s very important – if you don’t do it, you’ll have a vegetable stew, but it won’t be ratatouille. It’s down to what food scientists call the ‘mouthfeel’ – and the mouthfeel of olive oil is simply so important to ratatouille that we’re going to have to take a calorie hit to get just enough of it for the recipe to work. Don’t worry, the whole thing still comes in at about 125 calories for a big, filling portion which actually might be too much for some people…… though not me…
4-5 big portions 2 decent sized onions, sliced 2 cloves of garlic finely chopped 2 green peppers cut into strips 2 aubergines, sliced into rings about ¼" thick 250g courgettes, sliced 1½ 400g tins of tomatoes 100 ml white wine 1 tsp dried mixed herbs Extra virgin olive oil A small pack of fresh basil, chopped 1 – 1½ tsp salt, black pepper
- Prepare the aubergines as described above.
- Meanwhile gently fry off the onion until transparent in a teaspoon of olive oil, keeping the heat low. Add the garlic towards the end of the process.
- Add the green pepper and continue to cook until softened using extra spray oil if necessary.
- Transfer to a saucepan and combine with the tomatoes, wine, courgettes, aubergines and dried herbs, cover the pan and simmer for about 40 minutes until the courgettes are tender. Stir occasionally but gently – you don’t want to break things up – and be careful not to overcook.
- Finally, add the fresh basil and seasoning and remove from the heat.
- Check the seasoning – make sure there’s enough salt to really bring out the flavours – then stir in 10ml of olive oil.
- Serve à tiède – at room temperature – with a glass of rosé, preferably a beautiful amber-coloured Côtes de Provence (not, please, some horrible “blush” concoction) – or a slightly chilled Bandol red. About 120 extra calories, if your allowance can take it.