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