I had fun fixing my dinner tonight. Thought I’d share it with you. As I am usually cooking for one, it's always a challenge to come up with meals that are interesting as well as healthy, and not the same-old, same-old.I’ve got a new kitchen mandoline for slicing fresh veggies, and it really does a superb job with everything from baby eggplant to over-ripe tomatoes. So because those tomatoes aren’t going to get any less ripe the longer I wait, I decided to try something I am calling “Roasted Ratatouille”.  

My friend and I went to an Indian market the other day, and I bought the cutest little eggplants no bigger than a large hen’s egg. One of these – unpeeled – sliced up into about 8 or 9 slices. A summer squash came next, followed by the tomato.

I put all the sliced vegetables into a small bowl and drizzled about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over them. I followed this with about a tablespoon of very good balsamic vinegar, as well as some sea salt and fresh black pepper. After tossing the veggies in this mix, I spread them out on a cookie sheet. I added about a tablespoon of sliced leeks, separated into rings and sprinkled among the slices.  

Then I went out to the front porch where my herb garden (in pots) is flourishing, and snipped some basil and rosemary (about two tablespoons, sliced). These got sprinkled on top of the “ratatouille” mix.  

These all went into the oven for 20 minutes at 400 degrees. I kept an eye on their progress and actually pulled them out about 5 minutes early, as the thinnest slices were beginning to turn too crispy.   As soon as I brought them out of the oven, I sprinkled shredded fresh Parmesan over the top. Then I piled the whole mess onto my plate!  

Meanwhile, I had taken the remains of the vegetable marinade of balsamic vinegar, oil and the bits of tomatoes and seeds that were left, and strained it into a cup; I set it aside.  

Briefly I sauteed some baby portabello mushrooms, cleaned and sliced in half, in 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1 teaspoon butter. Then I added chicken tenders that I’d cut into 2-inch chunks, and rolled in Panko crumbs. When the chicken was cooked, I moved it over to the other side of the skillet and deglazed the pan with the vinegar and oil mixture. The chicken and mushrooms went on to my plate and the reduced sauce went over everything (there was only a couple teaspoons of liquid, but it was enough...)  

I gotta say, it was a whole lot quicker than traditional ratatouille and the results were absolutely yummy. You could certainly change up, add or subtract any vegetables you'd prefer to use, and omit the chicken as well. Experiment with it!
 
 
Sometimes you receive a gift that is not expected – not foreseen, not anticipated in any way. That happened to me this week. I was given the gift of returning to my youth just as we have all dreamed: “knowing what I know now”...My best friend in college came for a long overdue visit – it’s been 45 years since we graduated and in that time we’ve only seen each other twice before this week.  Against all odds we fell right into the same easy relationship we’d had four decades ago.  

Although we came from very different backgrounds, we were drawn to each other by our similar view of the world – one that was totally and comically warped (an all-female college already facing obsolescence). The world was warped, not we! We just laughed and acted crazy. Although she loved Belmondo and I loved Bogarde, we equally lusted after Tony Perkins in Phaedra.

The great films of post-war Europe beckoned us to run away – run away from Peter Pan collars and Pappagallo shoes and engagement rings and hangovers and pseudo-folkies. 

Forty years later we have raised a bunch of kids, had great loves and lovers, and seen rather more of sadness and pain than we’d admit even to each other. But for three days we laughed at exactly the same things (Owen Wilson playing Woody Allen), lusted after the same actor (Jon Hamm), ate way too much really good food, shopped and talked politics and agreed that indeed, the word is totally and comically warped. Still. And we are best friends forever, still.
 
 
These past two weeks have been interesting around the house. I contracted to have, first, an energy audit conducted and then to have several projects begun to improve the energy consumption of this 91-year-old bungalow. The reason for all the excitement was a particularly brutal winter which resulted in roof damage, again.  

The roof (this one is only four years old) has been repeatedly battered over its history by ice dams which occur over the four corners of the house. If you’re not aware of the nature of ice dams, they are caused by heat rising from the interior of the house through a poorly insulated exterior, which melts the accumulated snow pack during the winter. At night or as the temperatures drop outside, the melted snow refreezes and builds up at the edges of the roof until it’s several inches, sometimes a foot or more, thick. The weight of this ice can and often does literally break the roof. Newly melted liquid which accumulates under the ice has nowhere to go, and finds its way into the interior of the house creating leaks and water stains and mold.  

My house had little or no insulation in the walls and none to speak of in the roof. In addition, in the style of most bungalows of its era in the Northeast and elsewhere, the roof extends out beyond the exterior walls at least three feet. It’s the style, and it’s charming, but it means there’s no support and the weight of the ice is even more damaging. 

When I was able to go around the house in early spring and observe the effects of the winter, it was obvious that there was new roof damage in one spot. I knew I could no longer postpone the inevitable: put in insulation wherever possible and stop the madness!  

So I had two energy audits performed, as part of a New York State program, in order to get two competitive bids on the work. The two companies are well-known and well-regarded in the area, and I’d used one of the two previously to install windows.  

After the two audits were performed, I chose the one with which I felt more comfortable, and whose price was both reasonable and within my budget (which required a long-term loan through the State’s program, at a very low interest rate.)   Their work would cover upgrading the electrical wiring in the second floor/attic, replacing basement windows, and insulating both the basement and the second floor. The roof repair will be done by a different contractor, and that’s the only part of the project that is even slightly covered by homeowners insurance. 

During the audit, gas leaks were found near the furnace, so my furnace company came in and repaired those.

I’m very pleased – so far – with the work that was performed, and the way the crews worked (through some of the hottest days so far this year). A comparative energy audit was performed today to present to NYS, for their approval of the project. The results were pretty astounding. The energy consumption as tested was reduced by about 35%, which should be reflected in my heating bills next winter. I won’t really know how well the insulating will have worked until we see the ice dams next year! They won’t be completely eliminated but should be greatly reduced.   There’s still a small punch list of items to be finished up next week. Aside from the fine layer of dust all over, and the fact that I can’t use the eaves for storage anymore, there’s no visible difference (oh, except for the lovely windows in the basement!!)   Next I have plans to do some basic remodeling of the second floor – paint, a TV, air conditioners in the bedrooms, etc. It will be a fun summer!  
 
 
Of course, I love gardens. Don't we all love the color, the fragrance, the variety that gardens provide us? But here's what I don't like: dirt. I don't like dirt on my clothes or under my fingernails (I just spent $50 on a mani-pedi, a rare indulgence but hey - dirt doesn't go with the pink lacquer!). I don't like hauling 20 lb bags of potting soil from my car to the workspace I've temporarily created on the porch. I especially don't like cleaning up afterwards.

I also don't like digging holes in the dirt of my flower beds. I don't like finding rocks, pulling weeds, digging up roots and squishing bugs. I don't think it's fun or fulfilling or even relaxing to have dirty sneakers and work gloves to clean off. Nor is it relaxing to brush away sweat in my eyes, sweat that fogs up my eyeglasses and makes my hair a mess. I don't like having to remember to water the plants - often, I forget - because to my way of thinking, it's my job to plant the damn things, it's Mother Nature's job to remember the water!

What I do like? Finding rose buds on my rosebushes...rosebushes that my late husband and I nurtured over the course of several winters and which, now, I treasure because of that memory. His love for me was evident as he earnestly constructed plywood shelters for those baby bushes so many years ago. I have a new bush to plant this year, and I wonder who will build a plywood shelter for this one? Will it live through a brutal winter like the one we just had?

The lady's mantle and heuchera that I planted last fall with little hope they would live, did survive. They are growing. That's another thing I love about gardening. The hope - and the suspense - and the success. It doesn't always happen that way, here in upstate NY. But it happens just often enough that (like golf) it makes me want to try again. In spite of the dirt on my clothes and under my fingernails. Silly, isn't it?