My way back in

Many moons ago, in a far off land called my kitchen, I once baked a lot of chocolate chip cookies. Remember that? I do. I think. Sort of.

Anyway, in the comments section of that post, a couple of you asked how the pregnancy was going, which made me realize that, except for confessing to a stronger than usual commitment to the art and practice of snacking, I hadn’t said much about it here. So, I clicked over to a clean white screen, typed a few sentences about how I was feeling great, really great, that no, I hadn’t experienced any cravings, though my fondness for vinegar had reached new and towering heights, and that the one food – the sight of it, the smell of it, sometimes the mere thought of it – that had me sweaty-palmed and heaving right up until the day I delivered was c-h-i-c-k-e-n. (We’re back on now, chicken and me.) I put up this photo that Eli took twenty days before Mia was born:

Then, I went to bed with the plan to finish up the next morning. The next morning, though – thirty six weeks and two days into my pregnancy – things got weird. And by weird, I mean contractions weird. Also weird: Eli, as in, that guy I’m married to, as in, the father of the baby on the other side of those contractions, was in Australia. You think I’m kidding, but I’m not. AUSTRALIA.* I called the doctor, who said that the contractions could progress to full-on labor within the hour, or could carry on intermittently all the way up through my fortieth week. Eli’s plane would touch down 48 hours later, and he suggested that, to maximize the chance that Eli would be present for his daughter’s birth, I stay as horizontal as possible until then. No problem. Except for that my family was in town to guard the belly while Eli was away, and my father was turning 60, and I had planned a surprise birthday party to be executed within those 48 hours. No problem. Because it was a party at a movie house, with a screening of The Wizard of Oz (Blu-ray! 70th anniversary edition!), since it’s common knowledge that if my dad “could see only one movie for the rest of his life” that’s what it would be. I could put my feet up and be more or less horizontal the whole time. So no problem. No problem at all – but for the single step down into the projection room that my full-term belly obscured. Owwww. I didn’t realize how bad it was until a few hours later, when my right ankle went from really quite painful to REALLY QUITE PAINFUL, and suddenly it’s midnight, and I’m sitting on a bed pillow on the floor, trying (unsuccessfully) to scooch my way to the bathroom. And that, friends, is how Eli, after 28 hours in the air from Brisbane to Sydney to San Francisco to Boston, found me, swollen-ankled, contracting, and crying (but hey, still pregnant!) when he walked through the door. Then came an ambulance, and a stretcher, and an x-ray (sprained, not broken), and an air cast, and crutches, and a 9-months-pregnant Jess crutching around with as much grace as a 9-months-pregnant Jess.

Suddenly, whatever I was saying in that original post about my no-big-deal-I’ll-go-run-a-few-miles-just-please-don’t-feed-me-chicken pregnancy felt like yesterday’s news. I almost let the whole thing go, since I was afraid that the recipe I wanted to share with you, Julia Child’s ratatouille, was also yesterday’s news. (October, October, where did you go? Oh, right.) But my sources tell me that there are still a few decent tomatoes to be found at the farmers’ markets, and we’ve still got green peppers, eggplant, and parsley sneaking into our weekly farm share box, so if you act fast, maybe it’s not too late, after all.

So, how was my pregnancy, you ask? It was great. Really great. The oddest thing though: throughout it, I wasn’t very hungry at all. Oh, I ate plenty, never fear, not only because I took the business of growing a tiny human inside of me very seriously, but also because, if I didn’t, the world would go all spinny and a little bit grey. But lightheadedness is very much not the same thing as hunger, and grabbing a cluster of grapes and a few spoonsful of yogurt to stay upright and conscious is very much not the same thing as chewing and swallowing to satisfy an honest to goodness desire to eat. It’s much less fun. I missed the urge to reach for seconds, to walk the long way home past the bakery so that I could grab a pecan-raisin roll, or order the tasting menu at my favorite Cambridge restaurant and take it down, every last bite. A tiny, squished up appetite together with a constant supply of produce that requires only a sharp knife, a trickle of olive oil, and a splash (okay, a river) of vinegar, meant that I wasn’t spending much time in the kitchen. I missed that, too.

Julia Child’s ratatouille was my way back in. It is, in Ms. Child’s words, “not one of the quicker dishes to make,” and one day in late July, after so many meals of assembled raw things on a plate with crackers and a bit of cheese, that sounded just about perfect to me.

Assembled cooked things on a plate with crackers and a bit of cheese may sound like more of the same, but that afternoon, it felt like a breakthrough.

I first tried ratatouille when I was in college, where they sold it in plastic containers at the University Food Mart. It was a little sad and shelf-weary, but because it was my first, it was, in my mind, what ratatouille was supposed to be: summer vegetables buried in a thick, very red, mildly sweet sauce. For years, I never followed a recipe. I just modeled the ratatouille in my own kitchen after that one. I never made it the same way twice, but it was always saucy and rich, leaning heavily on the glorious summer tomato (and sometimes on a tablespoon of tomato paste, too). Over a steaming pillow of polenta, ratatouille was dinner. Heaped on thick slices of garlic-rubbed toast, it was lunch. Julia Child’s ratatouille is dryer, more of a relish than a sauce, more pepper-, parsley-, and zucchini-green than tomato-red. It’s the kind of thing you eat on the side, or for a snack, or a snack-like meal, as the case may be. According to Ms. Child, what makes this ratatouille is that “each element is cooked separately before it is arranged in the casserole to partake of a brief communal simmer.” That way, “each vegetable retains its own shape and character.” If it sounds as if this recipe will tether you to the kitchen for a while, that’s because it will. Feels good, sometimes.

*For his brother’s wedding! The best possible reason. Happy, happy day, Katie and Jonathan.

p.s. -- Thank you for your cheers on the last post, friends. It was so fun, so special, to share the news with you here.

Julia Child’s Ratatouille
Adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking

1 pound firm, ripe, red tomatoes
½ pound eggplant
½ pound zucchini
½ pound (about 1½ c.) thinly sliced yellow onions
2 (about 1 c.) sliced green bell peppers
2 cloves mashed garlic
3 T. minced parsley
Olive oil
Black pepper

Peel, seed, and juice the tomatoes. I use Julia Child’s method:

Drop the tomatoes into a pot of boiling water and boil for 10 seconds. Remove, and cut out the stems. The skins will slip right off. Cut the peeled tomatoes in half crosswise, not through the stem. Gently squeeze the seeds and juices from each half.

Peel the eggplant and slice it lengthwise (“3/8 inch thick, about 3 inches long, and 1 inch wide,” says Julia Child; I didn’t measure). Scrub the zucchini, slice off the two ends, and cut it into slices about the same size as the eggplant pieces. Place the sliced eggplant in a bowl, and the sliced zucchini in another, and toss with a few pinches of salt. Let stand for 30 minutes. Drain. Dry each slice (!), or do as I did, and spread the slices out on a towel, lay a second towel on top, and press gently to absorb any excess liquid.

Heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a 10- or 12-inch skillet. Sauté the eggplant and then the zucchini in batches, a single layer at a time, until lightly brown. It should take about a minute on each side. Transfer to a dish and set aside.

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

Slice the peeled, seeded, and juiced tomatoes into 3/8-inch strips. Lay them over the onions and peppers, and season with salt and pepper. Cover, 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 the heat, and boil for several minutes, until the juice has almost entirely evaporated.

Place a third of the tomato mixture in the bottom of a casserole or Dutch oven and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of the minced parsley. Arrange half of the eggplant and zucchini on top, then repeat: tomatoes, parsley, eggplant and zucchini, and finish with the remaining tomatoes and parsley.

Cover the casserole or Dutch oven and simmer over low heat for 10 minutes. Uncover, and baste with the rendered juices. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Raise the heat slightly and cook uncovered for about 15 minutes, basting several times, until the juices have evaporated, leaving a spoonful or two of flavored olive oil.

Serve warm, cold, or room temperature. It’s all good.

Serves 6-8.


Molly said...

Pot belly. Awesome.

The Harvard Square Farmer's Market allows me to do two things I love in one well fell swoop: enjoy fresh local produce and HiRise's vanilla bean loaf. Try and get an end piece. Actually, insist upon it.

I'm sure you must hear this all the time, but goodness, Mia is so gorgeous. Just gorgeous.

Shugah said...

She is complete perfection.

Sally said...

What a crazy story - told so beautifully.

You can still go to HiRise and Oleana with your lovely babe! I have fond memories of eating and nursing (simultaneously) in HiRise, and we took our 8 week old to Oleana for our anniversary - she slept through the entire 2 1/2 hour meal, including when we were stuck because the building next door caught on fire, closing the street for a while...

Enjoy your sweet baby - I've got 11 1/2 weeks to go and cannot WAIT!

Kasey said...

Oh my goodness, Jess! I'm so glad to hear that everything worked out and Eli was able to make it back in time! The recipe sounds great, too. :0)

Janet said...

We, your loving readers, are here for your recipes. But we are also here for you, and count it a joy that you share your stories with us. So very happy that this one ended as beautifully as it did with the birth of Mia. Welcome back!

Barbara said...

I loved this post, Jess. And your happy ending is Mia!
Julia's ratatouille is simple and the veggie flavors shine through. Love the idea of serving it over polenta!

Rose-Anne said...

I agree--sometimes an afternoon in the kitchen is just what a person needs to feel more like herself!

It's so nice to see a post from you, Jess. I hope motherhood is treating you well and that you are getting some sleep!

linda said...

what an incredible posting…your writing is magnificent & alluring …
it swooped me right in!

dear baby mia…your mom's virtual friends are so happy about your arrival…welcome to SA…it is a warm, "tasty" & cozy place to be!!

Jess said...

Hi, all!

Molly - The vanilla bean loaf. YES. It is crazy delicious. Thanks for the tip about the end piece. Next time...

Thank you, Shugah!

Sally, yes! I'm actually getting pretty good at this nursing on the go thing. (Or, rather, Mia is!) It was before she was born that I found myself at Hi-Rise less often and unable to finish my meal at Oleana, since I was so darn not hungry. All that's behind me now. I'm hungrier than I've ever been, no doubt thanks to the nursing! (p.s. - Have you been to the new Hi-Rise on Mass Ave.? It's lovely. p.p.s - 11 1/2 weeks! I'll be thinking of you.)

Hi, Kasey. Yes, me too. So, so glad. Phew.

Thanks so much, Janet!

Barbara - Yes, it's a great ratatouille for precisely the reasons you mention. It tastes "cleaner," or something, than the saucier ones I've made...

Hey, Rose-Anne! Agreed. It's what I need right about now, to tell you the truth. As for the lack of sleep, I think we may have turned a corner this week. We'll see!

Thank you so much, Linda. Welcome, Mia, indeed. It's all of you, I hope you know, that make this place so special. I mean that.

Happy weekend, all!

Adrian J.S. Hale said...

Beautiful! All of it. The story, the telling of it, the picture of Mia, the big red pot of ratatouille. Thanks for the recipe. Alas, here in Portland, the tomatoes have become spare. But I'm filing this away for next year (when I hope to be hearing stories of Mia's first birthday party).
Thanks, as always, for sharing.

Where My Heart Is said...

Mia is so beautiful. What a wonderful time in your life Jess. Cherish each moment - I have 2 daughters and my youngest is finshing high school in 2 weeks. It seems like yesterday I was sleep deprived and nursing them.

Sally said...

Jess - I have been to the new Hi-Rise - it is gorgeous but when I was there, it was SO HOT! It's two doors down from my husband's office so he's very happy. Given that, I suspect that I'll hang out there a bit when this sweet baby is born! Congratulations on nursing on the go - it's such a great skill to have (and it's really as much as you as it is Mia!!!).

Cucina49 said...

What a wonderful post, and how fortunate that your husband made it home in time. A friend of mine had the same experience with eating during pregnancy--she said that the baby basically crowded out any desire she had for food.

Harriet said...

Thanks for posting this, Jess. I took my Mastering the Art of French Cooking off the shelf this weekend and got to it--I can't believe I never made this before (eggplants, tomatoes, and onions are my favorite things, except chocolate).