Saturday, April 18, 2009

Reliving Italy

Here we are in Tuscany and Florence... you have to have lovers kissing in photos in France or Italy!

I've decided two things this morning... well, actually it is afternoon now, but I started thinking about this in the morning, so that counts. Thing #1: Create your own paradise wherever you are however you can. At this very minute, I am sitting in sunny North Carolina on a deck overlooking High Rock Lake. I am listening to Michael Buble on iTunes, sipping Weingut Michlits Pinot Noir 2007 frizzante rosé, a bubbly organic pink wine from Austria recommended to me by Randy at Wine Authorities. My two buddies, Martha and Monette (it is Monette's lake house) are off at the Childress Winery in Lexington, NC hosting a bridal shower for the daughter of a deceased friend. As much as I love these two amazing women, getting me away from home for an entire weekend was not easy (this is unbeknownst to them-- well, it was until I started writing about it!). I love my new home in Durham. Steve and I had talked about going to the Durham Farmer's Market to buy herbs for my planned herb garden, then heading to Cary for Great Grapes, an outdoor celebration featuring wineries from all over our state and later cooking something on the grill. My weekends with him are relaxed now and always include a trip to the grocery store for our weekly shopping, a chore I used to hate. We've discovered it's much more fun to share the job on a quiet Sunday morning. (We even share cleaning the house in this second phase of our relationship-- he is a darned good househusband! I am the bathroom cleaning pro after my experience in Arles, he does the floors beautifully.) Anyway, Martha and I left Cary after watching game 1 of a baseball doubleheader against Cary Academy. Her son pitched the first game. (He hit a home run in the second one, but we missed it. There goes her Mother-of-the-Year bid for 2009...) My son is the best center fielder in Durham Academy history, not that I am prejudiced or anything. We arrived at the lake around 8:00 pm, ate pizza, drank wine and visited with Trudy and Dan, friends from Lexington. I downloaded Martha and Monette's photos from our week in Italy and then put them together with mine to create a slide show. This is our designated It-Lee Reunion Weekend. We stayed up until 1:30 am laughing at our pictures and reliving that week in Rome, Florence, Tuscany and Cinque Terre, with a couple of days in Arles and Marseille thrown in before they left me mid-way through my sabbatical. So, I have at this very minute, created my own little paradise. I have indeed put on sunscreen but will end up sunburned anyway. To say that I am pale, is an understatement.
That leads me to Thing #2. Do not allow what you look like to interfere with potential fun. I am nearing my 51st birthday. I have not been very active since returning from France. No long, strenuous walks at Duke, no pilates classes. Settling back into wifedom, motherhood and teaching full-time takes every waking minute of my time. Add in cold, rainy weather, darkness by 5 pm for a couple of months and I've become mushy. At least mushier than I want to be. Therefore I very reluctantly dug out my black swimsuit, the same one I wore on the beach of Monterosso and along the French portion of the Mediterranean Sea. I make no excuses for being mushy... menopause, hyperthyroidism, busy schedule (ok, ok, so I am making a few excuses here). However, I decided to not let that stop me from putting on the swimsuit and sitting out in the sun right now. Last night Martha, Monette and Dan talked about a friend from high school who will not attend their reunions due to the fact that she has gained weight. She has gone from being the high school homecoming queen to a middle-aged mom carrying around extra pounds. Why do we women allow the numbers on the scale to rule our sense of self-worth? Sure, I would love to look just like Diane Lane. (I've chosen her to play me in the movie version of my unwritten book. Martha can't decide who will play her. I haven't asked Monette yet.) But I don't. I am me. 50 and a little mushy. I love my (highlighted- thanks to Sarah at Studio K) hair. I love my green eyes. I could do without some of the wrinkles and under eye circles that surround them. But I am me. A work in progress!
Book update: I finished Julia Child's My Life in France and am afraid I have become a Julia fanatic. I really want a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, both volumes, no less. I can't wait for the movie Julie and Julia to come out in August. It stars Meryl Streep as Julia. The book by the same name is a great read. The movie is a combination of the two books, according to USA Today this past week. I am now reading The Widow Clicquot by Tilar J. Mazzeo. She researched the life of Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, the woman behind the stunning Veuve Clicquot champagne empire. Ghislaine and I visited their cellar in November on our trip to Reims. It was actually Betty Goolsby, my traveling companion who has unbelievably good taste, who introduced me to Veuve Clicquot yellow label champagne. It was the summer of 2006 in Paris. Yolanda Litton, Betty and I were walking back to our hotel, Les Jardins d'Eiffel, off of Rue Cler. It was late, around 11:00 pm, but Rue Cler doesn't go to bed early. We found a little table at a café (I get nostalgic every time I walk past that table and tell whomever is with me about that evening) and Betty ordered the whole bottle of champagne. We consumed every single drop, fell in love with the cute young guy at the table next to us wearing the amazing cologne (we didn't have the nerve to even ask him what it was-- can you even believe that?) and then decided to bring the glasses back with us. Closet kleptomaniacs that we are. Sorry, girls, the secret is out.
Another summer movie I look forward to seeing on the big screen is My Life in Ruins with Nia Vardalos. She plays a tour guide who needs to get a life. She was the star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. She has a wonderful sense of humor and writes about raising an adopted child who has the same gift of humor in the May 2009 edition of Good Housekeeping magazine. I'll bet her mom is laughing at the fact that her daughter finally understands what she herself went through. Mildred, my mom, spent years wishing I would have a daughter who would never shut up... Sorry, Mama!
Since summer is coming and I can hardly wait for fresh vine-ripened tomatoes and zucchini, I will leave you with Julia Child's recipe for Ratatouille and Chef Érick's recipe that uses the same ingredients but in casserole form. And, if you haven't watched Walt Disney's movie by the same name, rent it! It is one of my favorites!
Bon appétit!

From Julia Child

Ratatouille perfumes the kitchen with the essence of Provence and is certainly one of the great Mediterranean dishes. As it is strongly flavored it is best when it accompanies plain roast or broiled beef or lamb, pot-au-feu (boiled beef), or plain roast, broiled or sauteed chicken. Equally good hot or cold, it also makes a fine accompaniment to cold meats, or may be served as a cold hors d'oeuvre.

A really good ratatouille is not one of the quicker dishes to make, as each element is cooked separately before it is arranged in the casserole to partake of a brief communal simmer. This recipe is the only one we know of that produces a ratatouille in which each vegetable retains its own shape and character. Happily a ratatouille may be cooked completely the day before it is to be served, and it seems to gain in flavor when reheated.

For 6 to 8 people

1/2 pound eggplant
1/2 pound zucchini
A 3-quart, porcelain or stainless-steel mixing bowl
1 teaspoon salt
A 10- to 12-inch enameled skillet
4 tablespoons olive oil, more if needed
1/2 pound (about 1 1/2 cups) thinly sliced yellow onions
2 (about 1 cup) sliced green bell peppers
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil, if necessary
2 cloves mashed garlic
Salt and pepper to taste
1 pound firm, ripe, red tomatoes, peeled, seeded and juiced (makes 1 1/2 cups pulp)
Salt and pepper
A 2 1/2 quart fireproof casserole about 2 1/2 inches deep
3 tablespoons minced parsley
Salt and pepper

Peel the eggplant and cut into lengthwise slices 3/8 inch thick, about 3 inches long and 1 inch wide. Scrub the zucchini, slice off the two ends and cut the zucchini into slices about the same size as the eggplant slices. Place the vegetables in a bowl and toss with the salt. Let stand for 30 minutes. Drain. Dry each slice in a towel.

One layer at a time, saute the eggplant and then the zucchini in hot olive oil in the skillet for about a minute on each side to brown very lightly. Remove to a side dish.

In the same skillet, cook the onions and peppers slowly in olive oil for about 10 minutes, or until tender but not browned. Stir in the garlic and season to taste.

Slice the tomato pulp into 3/8-inch strips. Lay them over the onions and peppers. Season with salt and pepper. Cover the skillet and cook over low heat for 5 minutes, or until tomatoes have begun to render their juice. Uncover, baste the tomatoes with the juices, raise heat and boil for several minutes, until juice has almost entirely evaporated.

Place a third of the tomato mixture in the bottom of the casserole and sprinkle over it 1 tablespoon of the parsley. Arrange half of the eggplant and zucchini on top, then half the remaining tomatoes and parsley. Put in the rest of the eggplant and zucchini and finish with the remaining tomatoes and parsley.

Cover the casserole and simmer over low heat for 10 minutes. Uncover, tip casserole and baste with the rendered juices. Correct seasoning, if necessary. Raise heat slightly and cook uncovered for about 15 minutes more, basting several times, until juices have evaporated leaving a spoonful or two of flavored olive oil. Be careful of your heat; do not let the vegetables scorch in the bottom of the casserole.

Set aside uncovered. Reheat slowly at serving time or serve cold.

Le Tian Provençal - Mixed Summer Vegetables Provençal

The Tian is the name for the red clay baking dish of Provence, now primarily made in Spain. These dishes are now being exported to the States. They are wonderful for baking and roasting in the oven. Be sure there’s enough liquid in the dish to prevent drying in the oven, and when you remove the dish you can place it directly on the table. It holds its heat and looks nice.
(I brought a medium-sized one home from Arles in my carry-on bag-- merci, Chef Érick!!)

Preparation time : one hour ; Cooking time : 30 minutes

2 fat eggplant
3 zucchini
4 tomatoes
1 bell pepper (color of choice)
1 onion
2 garlic cloves
3 bay leaves
1/2 cup of olive oil
Grated cheese (in France, often it’s often gruyère, or Parmesan)

This recipe has two stages, some of the vegetables are pre-cooked, fried in olive oil, and others are put into the tian fresh.

Cut the eggplant in rounds and salt liberally, set aside to sweat for an hour. Cut the zucchini in rounds, the tomatoes likewise, set aside. Mince the onions, and chop the bell pepper in small pieces, set aside.

Take out a large frying pan and put in olive oil, fry lightly the minced onions and bell peppers, simply melting them down, reducing them, to a smooth caramelized mixture. Remove with a slotted spoon and layer on the bottom of the oven-proof casserole dish. Next fry the zucchini rounds, a minute per side, in the oil. Put aside.
When the eggplant rounds are nicely sweated and rinsed of their excess salt, tap them dry and then fry them a minute each side as well, set aside.

Crush and chop the garlic, and put the entire tian together. Place the onion and pepper mixture on the bottom, then start layering the eggplant rounds (just one layer thick), and then the raw tomato rounds, and a bit of the chopped garlic, crumbled bay leaf, a little salt, and then a layer of zucchini rounds. Start again till the tian is full and you have used all the vegetables.
Sprinkle the top with the cheese and place in the oven for 30 minutes at 375F/180C.

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