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Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012 05:42 pm

Snake in the ceiling

Further adventures at Spaulding farmhouse

If there had not been that snake in the ceiling, we might never have done it. My husband, Peter, and I knew when we bought the Spaulding Orchard farmhouse that we would eventually want to do some remodeling. But initially we only made minor changes, partly because of financial reasons, and because we wanted to live there awhile and let ideas develop, rather than rushing to make changes we would regret afterward.

We did make some changes, though, installing a door in front of the upstairs toilet, which was easily done. Now the kids and my husband Peter and I wouldn’t have to worry about ourselves or our friends traversing the hallway/bathroom stumbling inadvertently into someone’s private moment.

The kitchen received the biggest upgrade, although not nearly as much as we wanted. But the hot pink countertops had to go. The wallpaper throughout the house wasn’t what we would have chosen, but it was bland, not terrible. Except in the kitchen, which sported a ’60s-’70s print of stylized daises in hot pink and avocado green. The appliances were also avocado. It seemed an odd decorating scheme for Geraldine Spaulding, from whom we had bought the house: she was warmly friendly, but also quite dignified in her old age.

Looking at our finances, we decided we could immediately replace the kitchen’s dreadful countertops and pop art wallpaper. But we would wait awhile before replacing the avocado green appliances and the kitchen carpeting that was the same hue, but grimly darker.

I was not at all happy about leaving that carpet in place. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, kitchen carpeting was immensely popular, geared for a new kind of cook: one who primarily opened cans and cardboard boxes of pre-prepared items and “nuked” them in the microwave: Voila! Dinner in minutes with no fuss or bother, and certainly no mess.

But I wasn’t that kind of cook. Not even close. One of the things I always included in endless sketching of my dream kitchen was a drain hole in the floor to hose down stuff. Still, looking at the numbers and wanting to be practical, I agreed to leave that crummy kitchen carpeting in place. But I vowed it wouldn’t be there long.

It wasn’t. Two weeks after we moved in, I prepared a huge bowl of ratatouille – a classic Southern France Provenal vegetable stew of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, onions, garlic, zucchini and herbs for a potluck picnic. Turning from the stove, I stumbled. The giant bowl flew out of my hands, landing upside down and cracking in half, its contents oozing onto the floor.

Peter still half believes I spilled that ratatouille on purpose. I hadn’t, but the ratatouille disaster did result in us getting new kitchen flooring a couple weeks later.

As the years flew by, we continued to talk about remodeling. But there always were plenty of reasons to put it off awhile longer: the economy, Peter’s need to expand his practice, and so on.

But everything changed one sunny fall weekend. We had turned the room on the first floor, that had been used by the Spauldings as their farm office, into a library/study room for the kids that housed our first home computer. Our son, Robb, was using the computer when he asked me to come help him.

Standing behind him, I suddenly heard a strange noise overhead. As I looked up at the fluorescent light fixture situated exactly over my head, an unmistakably sinuous large form, grey with spots, dropped into the light cover, slithered around for what seemed like an eternity, and then slithered out.

I don’t do snakes. Ever. As a country kid, I had no problem with spiders, mice or even rats. But snakes – no way! I don’t even care if they’re harmless (and actually beneficial) garter snakes. I have always known intellectually that it’s an unreasonable prejudice, but have never been able to convince my emotional self. I was committed to not passing that fear on to my children, but somehow they caught it anyway.

Even so, I controlled myself to calmly say to Robb, “Get your sisters and go outside and play, and walked over to where Peter was working, and said, “You have to deal with this one.”

Peter’s not crazy about snakes either, but rooted around in the attic above the room, then called an exterminator, who showed up with a gun, descended into the cellar, and minutes later came upstairs with a dead snake dangling from his fingers.

“Got ’im,” he said cheerfully. “Though that’s prob’ly not the one you seen. There’s prob’ly lots of ’em in the walls in an old house like this. It’s not a bad thing – they eat the mice. I’ll go into the crawl spaces on my belly to look for more, but it’ll cost you big time.”

In less than a month, we met with an architect, contractors and our bank. The minor remodeling we had envisioned turned into a huge project that took almost two years.

Sometimes I wonder if there are still snakes in the house. After all, we left the original 1930s portion as is. But I don’t wonder for long. Truthfully, I would rather not know.

I am particularly proud of this recipe for ratatouille, which in Provence has almost as many variations as cooks who make it. Even though the ingredients remain constant, their proportions and cooking instructions vary widely. Too often, ratatouille is cooked down so much that it becomes a sad-looking (though tasty) mush. Not cooking it enough can make it watery. After much experimenting, I developed this method, which solves both problems.

Classic Southern France Provencal vegetable stew, Ratatouille.

•    8 c. peeled, seeded and chopped tomatoes
•    6 c. eggplant (remove any largely seeded areas), cut into 1-inch cubes
•    6 c. onions, NOT super-sweet, cut into 1- inch cubes
•    1/3 c. thinly sliced garlic
•    6 c. zucchini (remove any largely seeded areas), cut into 1-inch cubes
•    6 c. bell peppers – red, green or mixed, cut into 1-inch cubes
•    4 T. extra virgin olive oil, divided
•    3 T. chopped fresh thyme OR 1 tablespoon dried thyme leaves (NOT ground)
•    2 bay leaves
•    Kosher or sea salt
•    Freshly ground pepper
•    Minced fresh hot chilies OR hot pepper flakes to taste, optional

Mix the tomatoes with 1 tablespoon salt, and put in a colander. Drain for one hour, stirring occasionally. Mix the eggplant with 1 tablespoon salt in another colander. Drain for one hour.

 In a large skillet or wok, heat 1 tablespoon oil over very high heat. Add the onions and stir-fry until softened and lightly caramelized. (Don’t crowd the vegetables – if your skillet isn’t big enough, do this in batches) Add the garlic and cook for a couple of minutes until the garlic has softened but not browned. Put the onion and garlic mixture into a large heavy-bottomed pot. Add the drained tomatoes, bay leaves, thyme and hot peppers if using. Place the pot over medium heat, and bring to a simmer, stirring frequently.

Rinse the eggplant cubes thoroughly and roll them in a lint free towel. Squeeze the towel to remove as much moisture as possible. Return the skillet to high heat, add another tablespoon of oil. When hot, add the eggplant and stir-fry until softened and lightly caramelized. Add to the pot. Return the skillet to the heat, add a tablespoon of olive oil, repeat the process with the peppers, then add to the pot. Repeat with the zucchini, but after stir-frying, set it aside; DO NOT add to the pot.

Cook the mixture, stirring frequently, until it’s thickened and excess liquid has evaporated, about 20 minutes. Adjust the heat to avoid scorching. Add the zucchini, reduce heat to low, and cook another five minutes.

Remove the bay leaves and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes about 12 cups

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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