AN APARTMENT AND FOOD FOR SUMMER
Summertime finally flashed by, the sun burning down, the air blowing hot and slow. We strip down to the bare minimum and languish on the sofa, windows flung open as we wait for the soft caress of a breeze to cool us down. Step outside and the heat grabs us, wraps itself around us and squeezes tight and we think of nothing but to search for shade. We droop and sag and move in slow motion, hand brushed across the forehead, squinting into the white light bouncing off of the walls of this City of White.
The quiet dilemmas of everyday life alter with the weather: cheeses in the fridge (where they lose their personality, their creamy voluptuousness, their distinctive flavor) or out of the fridge (where they sweat and puddle onto the plate in a liquid mess); windows open at night (the cool breeze mingling with the loud noises of passing cars and drunken youth) or closed (stifling hot silence); to cook (old bones dragged outside to the market teeming with sticky bodies; the heat of the kitchen) or not (feet propped up, fingers dragging lazily across the dog’s coat, cheese, bread and fruit. Again.). I bring home crisp brown paper bags overflowing with summer fruit, nectarines, peaches, cherries and strawberries, sweet and juicy, and eat one after the next in quick succession. We toss cool salads with ripe local tomatoes and make it a meal; chilled white wine accompanies cold meats and cheeses and if I dare bring home the odd lasagna or vegetable tart to reheat they look at me askance, shake their head as they mumble something about the inferno outside. We quench our thirst not with liquid so much as fruity boozy sorbets and granità, dare to order one more bowl of gelato, anything to cool off, even from the inside out. Yet when the rain returns, bringing a damp chilliness that settles in, we complain about the lack of summer, our need for warmth and the gentle caress of sunshine. We pull the sweaters back out, close the windows and heat up a bowl of soup.
Our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary came and went with brio; the afternoon found us in the tiny town of Campbon signing papers, handing over a check and walking away with a crumpled brown paper envelope full of loose keys, the keys to our new apartment. We decided the day called for a double celebration, so we wandered to a new part of Nantes looking for an open restaurant; this being both a Monday evening and the end of July we had little hope of finding something good open yet a restaurant that I have long wanted to try was open and a table for two on the breezy terrace under drooping swags of greenery beckoned and welcomed us. A romantic dinner for two toasted with a glass of Champagne, chilled cream seafood soup, monkfish and a trio of sorbets all enjoyed in a serene yet privately festive ambiance. We walked home hand in hand, a beautiful beginning to the next twenty-five years.
The men work in the apartment now every day, yanking up old mud-colored carpets glued firmly to elegant wood parquet, snip and snap at wires connecting no-longer-existent computers and telephones, hammer at walls and dividers, dust and paint chips swirling and settling around their feet. They come home for meals hot and tired and collapse into chairs, popping up again at 7 or 8, hungry as wolves, clamoring for a morsel. The apartment advances quickly as the time passes on winged feet; the clock ticks and the pages of the calendar flip over as the pages of the catalogues lying scattered on the floor. We argue the advantages of this stove or that dishwasher, we compare this bathroom vanity and that sink, discuss cabinet surfaces and colors, drawers or shelves and make decisions about tearing down one wall and putting up another. Our conversations are now peppered with measurements and the boys’ daily adventures in the apartment, littered with ideas and underscored by the many things done and still left on our to-do list. Frustrating, exciting, stressful and energizing, this is our new life.
Four young men and my husband slip into scruffed and torn sneakers and paint-stained overalls and shorts and work day in and day out, trying to keep to our schedule, trailing snakes of multi-hued wires, sacks bulging with refuse and snowy white footprints behind. Intermittent telephone calls from the other son off in the office in St. Nazaire or on the beach, feet propped up, claiming to work, asking for this measurement or that as he fine-tunes his designs for our future kitchen and bath, asks for preferences of tubs or stovetops, makes alterations and suggestions that only embroil us further. Keep repeating “It will get done! It will get done!” I dash over every couple of days from home where I am on Martysitting duty to snap pictures of the progress; one must keep a photojournal, records of the renovations as they happen! Exciting times, keeping us busy and moving towards the future.
And as the sun splits through the dark rain clouds and showers us with unbearable heat, I turn back to old forgotten recipes that have been shut up somewhere in the back of my mind all autumn, winter and spring. A cooling pasta salad with tuna is on the menu, but how to jazz it up and make it an exciting meal? I stroll through the market and purchase marinated artichokes and grilled calamari, ripe tomatoes, an avocado and tangy, salty black olives. Back at the house as I boil fusilli, I pop open a can of sweet corn and select a can of tuna in lemon sauce, all the better to heighten the flavor of an other-wise bland pasta salad. And I flip through the pages of a well-worn cookbook from my university days, The Frog Commissary Cookbook, and land on a favorite dressing recipe, Creamy Parmesan Dressing. This is no simple vinaigrette! Rather, this is a mayonnaise with the sharp tang of red wine vinegar and a handful of grated Parmesan tossed in. This dressing is our favorite dip for boiled artichokes and spectacular as a dressing for a pasta salad.
As for the salad itself, well, you ad-lib to fit your family’s tastes and desires, what is on hand and what in season.
CREAMY PARMESAN DRESSING
Adapted from The Frog Commissary Cookbook by Steven Poses, Anne Clark, Becky Roller, 1985
1 large egg
½ cup olive oil
½ cup vegetable oil
½ tsp salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Dash ground cloves
1/8 tsp Tabasco or other hot sauce
1 ½ tsps minced garlic
Up to 1/3 cup red wine vinegar
½ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
Whisk the egg until light colored. Whisk in the two oils gradually so that the mixture emulsifies, thickening into a mayonnaise. This can also be done in a food processor or with an immersion hand blender. Whisk in the salt, a generous grinding or two of black pepper, the ground cloves, the Tabasco and the minced garlic. Whisk in the red wine vinegar about a third at a time, tasting to see how tangy you like it. Finally, whisk in the grated Parmesan. Taste and adjust seasonings. Set aside while you prepare the pasta salad.
This recipe can be halved. I use a half quantity of the dressing for a pasta salad for four people.
For 4 people
This is just a list of suggestions, a list of what we love, but feel free to add or take away and create a salad for your tastes and for the season.
About 18 oz (500 grams) dried pasta for salad (penne, fusilli, large macaroni, orecchiette, etc)
1 red pepper
6 – 8 small marinated artichokes, drained and sliced in half
Two ripe tomatoes or a couple of handfuls cherry tomatoes, cleaned and sliced or cubed
1 ripe avocado, peeled and cubed
1 can very good quality tuna, preferably in lemon sauce
Grilled calamari or tiny squid or cooked shrimp (crab is also good)
¼ cup or more pitted black Greek olives
1 small can sweet corn
1 small can red kidney beans or white beans
Simply cook the pasta according to package directions, being sure to drain and rinse the pasta as soon as they are no longer al dente but just tender and cooked through. They should not be overcooked and soft but tender with some give under the tooth. Drain and rinse under cool water. Place in a large serving bowl.
Rinse, pat dry and trim the pepper; remove and discard stem and seeds. Cut into 5 or 6 large pieces and press flat on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Roast under the grill of the oven until the skin is charred black and bubbling.
Carefully remove from the oven and slip the pieces of charred pepper into a plastic bag. Let the pepper sit until cooled during which time the condensation in the plastic due to the heat of the peppers will lift much of the skin up off of the flesh. Simply pull each piece out of the plastic bag and slip a thin, sharp knife blade between the skin and the flesh and lift off the skin and discard. Slice the flesh into strips or bite-sized pieces and add to the pasta in the bowl.
Add all the other ingredients or those which you choose. Break up the tuna with a fork before adding.
Just before serving, whisk the Creamy Parmesan Dressing and pour as much on the salad, tossing until all of the ingredients are well combined, evenly distributed and coated with the dressing, as desired, to taste. Any unused dressing should be stored covered in the refrigerator.