Monday, July 15, 2013


 His nose lifted in the air as he stepped over the threshold. He breathed in deeply and immediately his face lit up. “Peppers!” he exclaimed! “You’re roasting peppers!” His six-year-old nose detected roasting red peppers. The sweet, smoky, slightly charred scent of peppers under the grill, skin blackened and bubbling up in the heat. Flesh melting hot, silky, sexy.

 We would sit around that long worktable in that narrow, cramped studio working assiduously, industriously, stitching, cutting, measuring, gluing. A millinery studio in the middle of Milan, the five of us, myself and Nadia, Gian Carla, Clara and Nuncia, would come together and gather to work. And while we worked, our fingers running miles a minute, precise, well-trained, concentrated movements close to automatic reflexes, our heads bent over our work, we would talk. And as varied as our work was our conversation: talking, ranting, chiding, teasing, lamenting; hats and clients, fashion and politics, television, children, husbands, families. And food. Of course, food. This was Italy and this was a workspace filled with Italian women, overflowing with passion and emotions, a room flooded with opinions and expectations. And food was often the center of conversation, as central as it was in their home.

 I was an apprentice in more ways than one. I was only beginning on my long journey towards becoming a milliner and these four formidable women had been at it for twenty, twenty-five years or longer. I was a comparatively young bride with tiny children while these ladies had grown children and even grandchildren. I had been in Italy a mere year and a half and was a novice in all things, all ways Italian. And these women were - dare I risk sounding absurd? – experts.

 And I, as far as they were concerned, had much to learn.

 For Nadia, Gian Carla, Clara and Nuncia, food was more than sustenance; food was the glue that kept families together, nourished souls and kept husbands content and at home. A woman fulfilled her wifely duties by placing a hot, delicious meal in front of her man every single day at noon and every single evening.

 I was an unknown entity, a foreign object, something that they couldn’t quite figure out. I never understood if I was an amusement or a disappointment when it came to my wifely ways but I know that in their eyes I was often lacking. And I obviously was on the slippery slope, living on the thin edge of the wedge. And I risked losing my husband any day, any moment.

 As noon approached, Nadia or Gian Carla, after having spent the better part of the morning on the telephone with daughter, sister, mother and cousin organizing the minutia of both the noon and the evening meals – who would bring the bread, who would stop by the butcher, who would assure the pasta course – one of them would look at me (Accusingly? A glint of amusement dancing in her eye? ) and ask “What are you making for dinner tonight?” and they would wait, all eyes upon me, for the inevitably weak response. Salad or soup. “Followed by…?” “Well, nothing, just salad or soup.” Eyes would drop, look discreetly away, heads would shake in disappointment, warnings would be issued. And then the suggestions would be tendered.

 Rabbit with yellow peppers was a dish offered to me by Nadia, sure to be loved by my husband. She enumerated the shopping list of ingredients as I scribbled each down; yellow peppers and lots of them, rabbit, sage. She walked me through the cooking process as a mother to a daughter. She kissed her fingertips as she described the sublime flavor. And she promised me that if I made this dish at home then my husband would never leave me.

 I still make this dish often, tender rabbit smothered in a rich, flavorful sauce thick with yellow peppers, three plump, neon yellow peppers, cooked until meltingly smooth, cooked until the peppers release their smoky sweet flavors. And my husband is still happily by my side.

 My mother’s stuffed peppers. Hamburger blended with onions and rice and pushed into the emptied cavities of a row of green peppers. Oven baked, the peppers shrivel and shrink like the skin pulling back on a skull. The bane of my childhood. Memories haunt me. My father’s red chili peppers strung along the kitchen window hanging in swags like curtains the color of a Rothko painting, deep red melting into black. Neglected. A source of endless teasing.

 Slices of red pepper, cool and crispy. Teeth press into the flesh and a thousand droplets of water spray out onto skin.

 The peppery flavor of mustard greens, radishes, rocket biting back in self defense. Temper its enthusiasm, its anger, its spicy heat with sweet tomatoes, tangy goat cheese or the mild, cool creaminess of mozzarella. A dusting of salt, a bite into dense country loaf slathered with butter.

 Minute flecks of black like dirt, intriguing, earthy, dangerous, against the golden shimmer of olive oil, the pristine white of cream.

 The sting came sharp and sudden from out of nowhere. I groped my way along the hallway, one hand held forward to avoid bumping into another victim, one hand over my face, fingers pressing into my eyes. Oh, the burn! I pushed forward hoping simply to make it up and out into the fresh air. Where it came from I never knew, the pepper spray.

 He peppered me with harsh words and accusations like punches. He peppered me with questions about my past as he held onto my wrist, delicately yet firmly. He peppered me with kisses hard and fast like buckshot. He peppered me with tales of his virility, his adventures around the female kind, hard and fast. He peppered me with a steady stream of irrelevant thoughts in a vain attempt at removing the boredom from my eyes.   


 Our first cookbook contained a string of recipes as spicy as our love, as hot as our passion for each other. The shelf was lined with every imaginable pepper, grains in white, gray, black, burnt orange Cayenne nestled up against the very feminine pink peppercorns the color of kissable lips, all the way from India.

 A palmful of peppercorns scooped into the mortar. Snatching at the tiny orbs escaping between my fingers as they roll hither and thither across the table, bouncing onto the floor. Press the pestle down and feel the peppercorns crush under the resistance as the pestle is turned and lifted, pressed, turned, lifted. A pinch of ground pepper, a fragrant mélange, into the gumbo or jambalaya or shrimp creole.

 Some like it hot.

 The very first ratatouille I remember making, although heaven knows there must have been others before, was for our wedding lunch. Ratatouille of eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes, a wealth of red and green peppers and cloves of garlic long simmered until tender, the flavors mellowing like old gentlemen growing tender and drowsy in the mid-summer heat, yet concentrating into something intensely sweet with a hint of something smoky, was nestled inside delicately bland choux pastries. A rustic buffet reminiscent of a pastoral picnic spread out before the dozen guests; hunks of artisan cheese and loaves of country bread, terrines and pâté surrounded by crispy cornichons, summer salads seasonal and fresh, tangy Lemon Chicken washed down so elegantly with an abundance of Champagne. And the ratatouille snuggled inside choux. A wedding meal prepared by the bride and groom, a wedding feast fit for a king.

 Ratatouille is quintessential French home cooking in my book. Every French family, every French kitchen seems to have its very own recipe made with a preferred choice of fresh vegetables straight from the garden or market, which is why this dish is as versatile as the flavors are complex. Ratatouille is an easy dish to prepare and an easy dish to serve; it is perfect eaten hot, cold or in between, perfect for a meal indoors, al fresco, a barbecue, buffet or picnic. Prepare your own version with any combination of these summer vegetables and your favorite fresh or dried herbs: sage, bay, thyme, mint, parsley or basil. Sauté a combination of red, yellow and green peppers and then stir in one or more that have been pre-roasted and peeled, either chopped or pureed for the added layer of flavor.


Add more or less of each ingredient to taste. Increase quantities for more ratatouille. My recipe serves 4. 

2 large peppers (red, yellow or green peppers, or a combination)
1 yellow onion
2 zucchini
2 cloves garlic
4 fresh ripe tomatoes or 1 can crushed tomatoes or cherry tomatoes
Fresh or dried herbs: basil, thyme, mint, flat-leafed parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil for cooking

Rinse and pat dry all of the vegetables. Trim the peppers; remove and discard stem and seeds. Slice one into long, thin strips. Slice the trimmed zucchini into coins; chop the garlic, the tomatoes and the onion.

Roast the second pepper under the grill of the oven until the skin is charred black and bubbling. Carefully remove from the oven and slide the pieces of charred pepper into a plastic bag and allow to cool. Slip a thin, sharp knife blade between the skin and the flesh and lift off the skin and discard. Slice the flesh into strips or purée and set aside.

Sauté the chopped onions in olive oil over medium or medium-low heat, stirring often, until very tender and golden brown around the edges.

Add the raw pepper, the zucchini and the garlic to the onions and cook, stirring often, until just tender and coloring around the edges. Add the fresh or canned tomatoes and the roasted red pepper. Add a handful of chopped fresh herbs or a pinch each of dried herbs. Salt and pepper. Add enough water to barely cover and allow to simmer for 20 to 30 minutes or until all of the vegetables are very tender, adding water as needed so the ratatouille doesn’t dry out and burn.

When the ratatouille is cooked to perfection, taste and add more herbs or salt or pepper as desired. Serve as a side dish to grilled or roasted meat or sausages or over rice or pasta as a vegetarian main. Serve hot or room temperature. This is ideal for lunch, dinner, a barbecue, a buffet or a picnic.


  1. My mother made stuffed peppers too! Such a lovely post, again, thanks for sharing!

  2. I love peppers! They are so versatile and delicious. It is one of my favorite summer vegetables.

    A delightful post and gorgeous recipe, as always! You ladies never cease to amaze me.



  3. This is a beautifully written piece about my favorite fruit. But, I'll still call it a chilli. :)

  4. You are such a wonderful writer, photographer and cook Jamie! This post was delightful and delicious. Perfectly peppery.
    Renee - Kudos Kitchen

    1. Thank you so very much, Renee, but I do want to point out that the photos are all styled and shot by Ilva!

  5. Jamie, love the part where you were given the yellow pepper and rabbit recipe. Women are wonderful at sharing...a reason you and Ilva make such beautiful posts together. Her photos are always astounding and the essence of beauty, and your writing is so evocative. Love peppers, too.

  6. I can see these women!! "Eyes would drop, look discreetly away, heads would shake in disappointment, warnings would be issued."

    And how I want a handful or two of those beautiful red chillies!

    Once again, Ladies, this is brilliant.

  7. Oops, I forgot to ask: do you ever put eggplant in your very French ratatouille, Jamie?

    1. Elizabeth, I used to add eggplant but find that it adds so much cooking time and I am never guaranteed that it will come out really, beautifully tender that I find this eggplant-less version quicker and easier and tastier. But most French put eggplant in. But it is one vegetable that family members risk being divided about. You could always pre-roast or grill the eggplant and add it to the ratatouille at the end.

  8. I know you say it serves 4, but I think I could eat the entire pot by myself! It looks absolutely divine Jamie :)