THE FRENCH WRITE WONDERFULLY OF WHAT FOOLS WE MORTALS be. Take Colette's compendium, "Earthly Paradise." Browse through it in the lazy sun,savoring as she did all the lovely moods of nature; the scents and poignancies of food and drink taken under the summer stars, in gardens, stolen under orchard trees, shared on a terrace in Provence.
Her sharp tongue and exquisite palate frame the food as Matisse framed those oranges on a balcony in Nice -- where would the sweet oranges of the world be without that salty azure sea and the lizard-green pattern on its white porcelain bowl? To read Colette on food is to plunge thumbnail-first into the heart of a blood-orange; to savor a sharp wine vinegar sprinkled on a fish rosy from the clear water, barely passed through the fire, like a saint, before its apotheosis with the first tender peaches on a blue faience plate.
It is Colette's France we long for when we think of that country -- the leisured, infin- itely sensual world in which there is always time to enjoy -- love, thought, wine, honest bread, ripe fruits. In truth, long before "Nouvelle Cuisine," Colette was advocating allowing food to speak for itself. She would no more have tolerated chicken in a smothering sauce than a heroine who veiled her slashing wit in the froth and furbelows of provincial convention.
Here is what she says of fruit: "Praise the fig, which from the earliest hours of summer makes its honey, swells with nocturnal dew, and, green and purple, cries through its eye a lone tear of delicious gum, to mark the precise moment of its perfection. Eat it under the tree, and if you value my esteem, never leave it in a cool place, or -- horror and sacrilege! -- in crushed ice, all-purpose last resort invented by the crude American palate, which paralyzes all flavor, stiffens the melon, anesthetizes the strawberry, and changes a ring of pineapple into fiber more textile than edible. The fruit room-temperature, the water in the glass cold; that is how water and fruit seem best."
In celebration of Colette, the perfect summer cook, who brought good food to the table dressed in its own ripe perfection, with a few judicious herbs, here is a summer menu easy on the cook, meant to be consumed outside in the cool of the evening.
2 loaves frozen bread dough
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
1/4 cup minced dried onion
2 teaspoons crushed dried thyme leaves
1/4 teaspoon celery seed
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup olive oil
3 cups fresh feta, mozzarella or chevre
2 cloves slivered garlic
2 sprigs of fresh rosemary
2 cups pitted ripe olives, drained
2 cups green olives, pitted and drained
6 cups chopped seeded drained tomatoes
2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano
3 cups chopped Spanish onion
First rub the frozen loaves with cut garlic and olive oil, then leave them in an oiled bowl, covered, until dough is soft but still cold. Divide each loaf into three parts, and flatten each part into an 8-inch circle. Mix together the parmesan, dried onion, crushed thyme and celery seed. Scatter it in a thin layer on waxed paper. Brush each crust with oil, then press it lightly into the seasoning. Allow it to rise again -- about one hour. Preheat a pizza stone or well-scrubbed brick tile in a 400-degree oven. Scatter a little cornmeal on the stone to keep the crusts from sticking as they bake. Bake the crusts for about 15 minutes, or until the bottoms are browned lightly. Remove and cool on racks.
Slice the cheese into 1/4 -inch pieces. Marinate it overnight in the olive oil with the rosemary and garlic.
Using a little of the oil which marinated the cheese, brown the onion very lightly. Add the olives, tomatoes, and oregano. Toss thorougly, and drain off excess moisture.
To assemble: Heat the oven with stone to 350 degrees. Brush the crusts with a little of the oil. Top the crusts with the tomato-olive mixture and slivers of cheese. Bake until the topping is warm, but don't brown it as if it were pizza or the tomatoes will lose their texture.
Dilled summer salad
2 unwaxed cucumbers
2 unwaxed baby zucchinis, about 1 inch thick
2 unwaxed baby yellow squash, about 1 inch thick
2 celery hearts, with stems cut about 5 inches long
1 cup french white wine vinegar
several sprigs fresh tarragon
spray of fresh dill -- feather leaves only
salt and pepper to taste
Wash the vegetables, but don't peel them. Slice them into spears about the size of dill pickle spears. Pack them in pretty rows in six individual serving dishes. Chop the herb leaves finely, and add them to the vinegar with the salt and pepper. Shake the herb vinegar to mix. Drizzle over the vegetables, and chill the salads, plates and all, until you are ready to serve. This is a finger salad -- no forks necessary.
Iceberg and three pepper salad
3 different colored peppers -- red, purple, yellow or green
L 1 head of iceberg lettuce, the inner white compact part only
1 can anchovies (flat, not rolled)
2 teaspoons capers
1/2 cup olive oil
cracked pepper to taste
12 lemon wedges
Cut the peppers into thin slivers. Mix the anchovies, capers and pepper into the olive oil. Toss the slivers lightly in the oil. Cut lacy "plates" of iceberg lettuce -- right through the head, so you have a sort of lettuce doily about 1/2 inch thick. Top with the marinated peppers. Drizzle the remaining oil over the lettuce. Chill until served. Garnish each plate with two lemon wedges.
1 small jar cornichons
1 bunch baby radishes, tops off but roots on
12 baby carrots
1/2 pint Greek oil-cured olives
3 bunches of tiny scallions, roots trimmed but some green left on
1/2 pound unsalted butter
5 or 6 fresh basil leaves
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
1 loaf unsliced black bread
Wash the vegetables and arrange in a pretty pattern on a dark plate. Soften the butter, chop the basil leaves finely and cream into the butter. Put the butter in a small bowl. Serve the vegetables, pickles, bread and butter as a first course. Give each guest a knife to whack off hunks of bread.
1 package prepared pie crust from the dairy case
3 ripe peaches
6 red plums
3 black plums
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons Cointreau
Choose the most unblemished fruit you can find. Wash gently. Using a sharp, serrated knife, cut unpeeled peaches into half-moon wedges. Put them into a bowl with a tablespoon of Cointreau and the lemon juice immediately, to keep the slices from discoloring. Sprinkle a little more lemon juice on the top slices, and cover them with plastic wrap, placed right on the slices to seal out the air.
Slice the red plums into a saucepan. Add 1/2 cup water. Cook over low heat until you have a thick, smooth plum paste. Let it cool.
Slice the black plums into half-moon wedges, and sprinkle with the remaining Cointreau. Cover with plastic wrap to keep from discoloring.
Place the pie crust in a tart pan, following package directions. Brush the crust with the egg, beaten with a teaspoonful of water and a pinch of salt. Coat the crust thoroughly. Bake the shell and cool it.
To assemble the "tart" (it's really just fruit in a crust), spread the cooled shell with the plum paste. Drain the juice from the marinated peaches and plums, and arrange the wedges in a sunburst pattern in the shell. You may want to top it with heavy cream, beaten just enough to thicken it a little.
Homemade lemon cordial
2 plump lemons
2 cups water
1/4 cup white corn syrup
3/4 cup vodka
Juice the lemons. Put the water, syrup and lemon juice into a saucepan. Scrape all the pulp out of the lemon skins with a grapefruit spoon. Leave the white, bitter zest. Add the skins to the syrup mixture. Cook over low heat, covered, for an hour. Remove the skins and reserve them. Reduce the liquid to about 3/4 cup. Strain through cheesecloth to remove any remaining pulp. Cool. Mix the lemon syrup with an equal proportion of vodka. Put in a clean glass jar, cap it and let it stand overnight. Serve in tiny cordial glasses, with a slender curl of lemon peel from the glazed lemon skins in each glass. The remaining lemon slivers can be used as a garnish on ice cream.