I want to focus on this pesto cheese for a minute before I go any further. You know how you end up buying a big bunch of basil, use a tiny amount in your dish and the rest just rots in your fridge? My solution to this recurring problem: pesto cheese.
Having pesto in your fridge makes more sense than hanging onto it in its perishable leaf form. For many reasons, the least of which is that it won’t have to be binned in two days. I always have a jar of it around which is how this idea came to be. I love the flavour of fresh basil in a ratatouille and this pesto cheese is a great way to achieve that. (Even if you don’t have pesto on hand, it makes sense to make some to use here—which I know beats the whole point of this exercise—but you’ll at least have some stashed away for another time when a dish requires a fresh hit of basil.)
Grate some cheese (I used mozzarella here) and mix in a few dollops of pesto through it. It may clump slightly as you’re doing it. Use a fluttering motion with your fingers like you would with a crumble topping, to break them apart.
The vegetable base is made entirely on the stovetop. I like to bulk up on the veggie front and use a combination of aubergine, zucchini and red peppers. First an onion and garlic base gets cooked down in lots of olive oil and then tossed with the veg and puréed tomatoes. Cooked low and slow for half an hour, the vegetables will have softened by this time. Softened but still holding their structural integrity; we don’t want no mush here.
To assemble, I like to layer the vegetables and pesto cheese. This requires no effort on your part but makes a huge difference in the way it eats. Layering them this way helps distribute the cheese evenly so you get a bit of everything in one bite. Serve with crusty bread to mop it all up, and with/without fried eggs alongside. Fair warning: there’s no turning back with this pesto cheese hack now! You’ll find a way to use it in everything.
RATATOUILLE WITH PESTO CHEESE
- 250 grams aubergine (1 large or 2 medium)
- 500 grams zucchini (2 large)
- 2 onions, finely chopped
- 10 large tomatoes
- 1 large red pepper
- 9 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon oregano
- 1 tablespoon chilli flakes
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- Salt, to taste
- 125 grams mozzarella, grated
- 3 tablespoons pesto
- Add the pesto and grated mozzarella to a plate. Mix through with your fingers. It might clump slightly but use a fluttering motion with your fingers to break them apart. Set aside in the fridge.
- Remove the seeds and white membrane in the red pepper. Chop the peppers, zucchini and aubergine into approx 2cm cubes.
- Grate the tomatoes and discard the skins that get left behind. Set aside the juice and pulp.
- Heat the olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot. Add the onions, garlic and red peppers and sauté over a medium heat until the onions brown slightly, about 5-7 mins.
- Add the zucchini and aubergine and cook for 5 mins. Add the tomato purée, chilli flakes, oregano, pepper, and salt. Stir through, then cover and cook on low for 25-30 mins.
- You want the vegetables to have cooked through and softened, but with a bite to them. The sauce will also have reduced by this time. Check a few times in between to make sure nothing catches at the bottom. Add a touch of water if necessary if it appears too dry. Check and adjust seasoning.
- Assemble: I did two layers. Tip half the vegetables into an oven-proof dish. Top with half the pesto cheese. Repeat once more with the remaining vegetables and the final layer of cheese.
- Bake in a preheated 180 C oven for 5-7 mins or until the cheese is melted through. Serve hot with crusty bread and with/without fried eggs alongside.