I work on the upper floor of the library by the windows facing south east. There have been days when I've been there from early morning until after sunset: reading, writing, or failing to do either. From up there I see the rooftops of so many houses and buildings. Some are arched, some pointed, some flat. I see churches, schools, chimneys, and far in the horizon even the lake. Working at the library isn't easy. It's a public place and the fluorescent stale feel of it can be alienating. Sometimes when I feel fear and doubt creeping in I look away from the blinking curser on the screen and out of the window and imagine that it is a different city I'm looking at.
On clear sunny days I focus on the churches and look at the blue line of the lake and imagine that this is somewhere in Italy. I look at people on bicycles and give them names like Francesca and Luigi. On rainy days I let my eyes hover unfocused in the few inches of fog that blur the tree tops and the pointed tips of some of the Tudor and Victorian buildings. This is London. The tops of the umbrellas move in small congregations of bright coloured circles and headlights double in puddles. When it snows and everyone down below has to deal with dirty slush on streets I am the lucky birds-eye daydreamer thinking of St Petersbourg. I listen at the tip of the hour for the University bell tower and imagine the snow covered domes of the church of Isidor and Nicholas: Ladies with fur collars and sun blocked by the snow clouds.
I don't seek escape in this. It is not a lack of love for my city or my life in its present place and time that I let my mind wander to places far away. It's something else. I think I find a humbling comfort in imagining so many lives in so many other places simultaneously existing and unfolding, each with its own sorrows and joys, hopes and desires, secrets and woes. When my sister was a child, my Dad would drive her crazy with a phrase he always offered when she was unhappy with something. Her tooth would be aching and he would say "do you know at this very moment how many children in how many different places in the world have toothaches?" Maybe back then her four-year-old heart found no comfort in that thought, but here I am, years later finding some relief in all the singularly significant features of all of those lives that my imaginary landscapes allow me even for just a moment to think about.
The recipe that follows is for a dish whose playful name will surely invoke the exotic for some, while it's humble origins and ingredients have for years brought simple comfort to many others. It takes some time to prepare but the depth of flavour achieved from layering all of these wonderful vegetables will add up to something bigger than their sum. You have my word. Just do me a favour: while you make it imagine how many people around the world are making ratatouille...
2 stalks of Celery
2 small carrots
2 red bell peppers (roasted, deseeded, skinned, and chopped)
1 can Crushed tomatoes
1 clove Garlic
1 green zucchini
1 yellow zucchini
2 firm roma tomatoes
salt to taste
pepper to taste
herbs de Provence to taste (savory, fennel, basil, thyme, and lavender)
Finely dice celery, carrot, and onion and saute until soft and coloured. Add finely chopped garlic and cook another minute. Add the chopped red pepper that you have roasted (on flame or in oven), deseeded, and skinned. Add the can of crushed tomatoes, season to taste, and bring everything to a boil. Simmer some of the liquid off and process using a hand blender or potato masher to get an even and slightly bumpy red sauce.
In the mean time slice the chinese eggplant (aubergine), zucchini, and tomato into thin rounds (as thin as you can mange without cutting yourself- or use a mandoline if you have one). If you have a sister around tell (or ask) her to do this part.
In a cast iron pan or baking dish a few inches deep, spread a healthy layer of red sauce and begin arranging the vegetables in concentric circles starting from the outside. Alternate between the vegetables, though not obsessively because that would take ages. Try to pack them in really tightly and only slightly tilted (almost standing right up in the sauce) because they will shrink as the liquids in them cook out. Season with salt and pepper as you go. Fill any gaps with extra vegetable rounds or red sauce.
Mix some Herbs de Provence with a few tablespoons of olive oil and pour over the top when you're done.
Cover with foil and cook in a 300 degree oven for 2 hours. Uncover and cook for another half hour in a slightly hotter oven and you're good to go. It makes a good vegetarian dish with bread or potato, but we love it most as a steaming side scoop to a roasted chicken.