A platter of stuffed vegetables

June 1, 1988, Marblehead, USA

After the funeral reception, Lewis kissed the urn that held his wife Elise’s ashes and placed it in the closet above his Brooks Brothers jackets. He then walked through the empty house and stopped to touch a picture of Elise holding their newborn son. With shaking fingers, he dialled a cab for the airport, where he would meet his girlfriend Judy.

Levanto, Italy, the following day

Bad news travels fast. When Lewis and his paramour arrived in my village for his annual stay, the contadini hoped to extend their condolences. They had all revered Elise, the lady with the silver bun. For a moment, they assumed that the woman in orange shorts following him into the piazzetta was his daughter and grew misty eyed at the sight of his supposed progeny. They did not expect her to grab his belt and force him into a clinch near the entrance of the church.

“We’re living the dream, Lewis. I’m outta my head with joy,” Judy said.

Lewis pecked her on the cheek and turned to his audience for formal introductions, but the contadini retreated into their houses to shelter themselves from any further improprieties.

This was my first summer in the village. I had never met Elise and Lewis before so I had no loyalty to the deceased, nor to their gilded past.

Lewis called me as soon as he was over his jet lag and summoned me for cocktails. He was delighted to have a fellow American as a neighbor and I liked him from the start.

“I told the agent downtown to find a buyer who had pizzazz. Well, he outdid himself by selling to Rossanna,” he would brag to all his party guests gathered on his terrace during the season.  

Judy lasted until he left in November and never returned.   

The following summer Lewis arrived alone but a string of American women came to visit.

There was the Californian who liked to power walk and swing weights up the hill during the siesta. The contadini were not impressed with her chiseled  thighs. “If we strap a burlap sack to her back we won’t have to feed the mule,” they would mutter.

There was the Texan who ordered two desserts and nothing else in the finest fish restaurant in town. The chef came out of the kitchen to look her in the eye.

“Signora, I have cooked for Pope John Paul II. Am I not worthy of you?”  

Between the changing of the guards, we would drive to Florence to stock up on cheap Tuscan wine and keep each other company over the dinner table. He was so dynamic and smart I never noticed the 40-year age difference between us.  A true Yankee, he reminded me of John Updike speaking Italian.

I did like Marion, a woman from his past in Marblehead and hoped that she would last. Lewis took me aside one evening and confided, “In 1968, Marion’s daughter disappeared into the Mojave Desert and was never seen again. Nobody knows if she OD’d or joined a cult. I helped her through that terrible time because her husband wasn’t up to it.”   

“Oh, I am so sorry,” I said.

“We always find each other when things get dark,” he said.

When she shook my hand in September and declared, “It was so nice meeting you,” I knew that she wouldn’t return. I was disappointed, but realized that she would never leave the States for too long in case she received a call from the police with new evidence. The heart never gives up hope.

The following summer, I drew a sigh of relief when Lewis showed up with Jane. Having lived in Bologna for several years when she was young, she fit right in. The contadini appreciated her morning chitchat and understanding of their way of life. She was the first of Lewis’s women who bothered to learn the local dishes and record their secrets and advice.

As 10 years flew by, I grew as fond of Jane as I was of Lewis. I hated to see them put their house on the market, but Lewis’s health had begun to decline. One morning as we were walking up the hill out of the village, he fell and cracked his head on a stone. Bleary eyed, he blinked at us both as we held his hands.

“Elise… Elise,”  he whispered.

I looked at Jane, who nodded and wiped the blood off his brow with her sleeve.

“Yes dear, I know you love us all.”

A platter of mixed stuffed vegetables is eaten all over the Ligurian coast as it is a good way to make a meal out of a few scraps and what might grow in the garden. Today, I give you Jane’s version, which she learned from the contadini.

Notes: Ham can be swapped for the mortadella, and vegetarians can leave it out altogether. Sometimes a few dried mushrooms are added to the meatless versions. Fresh marjoram makes the dish taste of the Riviera, but a heaping tablespoon of pesto would be a welcome alternative.



Ingredients

4 Zucchini
2 small eggplants
2 peperoni
100 g mortadella, chopped
A branch or two of fresh marjoram
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
2 eggs
50 to 100 grams of ricotta
A large slice of white bread, crust removed
Breadcrumbs
Olive oil
Salt
Pepper

Alternatives: Tomatoes could be used during the high season, and onions are popular all year round.

The Method

The eggplants and the zucchini should be cooked halfway before stuffing and baking. 

Slice off the tops of the eggplants. Place these and the entire zucchini in a pressure cooker and heat for 2 minutes to four minutes, depending on their size. Alternatively, boil the vegetables 5 to 6 minutes. Drain and run cold water over them to cool.

Cut to the pepperoni into 4 segments if they are large, 2 segments if they are small.

Dry the half-cooked vegetables. Remove the ends from the zucchini. Cut the eggplants and the zucchini vertically in half. Use a knife or a spoon to cut out the seeds and the inner pulp and drop this into a large mixing bowl. Lay the hollowed out vegetables on top of paper or cloth towels in case they throw off any liquid.

Place the ricotta in a strainer to drain off excess water.

If you have a stick blender and don’t feel like taking out the food processor, you can mix the stuffing right in the mixing bowl.

Add the chopped mortadella, the marjoram leaves, chopped garlic, the grated parmigiana, eggs, bread and salt and pepper. Blend well. The mixture will be quite liquid. Add a little ricotta and stir. Add more bread if the mixture is too thin.

Line 2 baking sheets with baking paper and lay the hollowed out vegetables on top. Spoon the stuffing into the vegetables and top with breadcrumbs. Drizzle a little olive oil over everything and bake in the oven for approximately 25 minutes or until they are golden brown.

Note: I used the convection setting on the oven, as I think it helps keep the vegetables from turning soggy, but they have been cooked in normal ovens for centuries, so it is not entirely necessary.  

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