Ciao'd with a dachshund on my lap.
When I landed my first job after college, my dad said, “How are the benefits?” I said, “They’re great. I’m living in New York City. I get to travel. I have a nice cube.”
Of course, my dad was referring to the benefits that didn’t much interest me. Unless I was in a car accident, health insurance was an afterthought. Unless I was in a tragic car accident, life insurance was a non-issue.
Life’s a lot different now. I wake up midway through the night to my husband snoring, an annoyance that did not share our bed years ago, and my mind immediately signals sleep apnea. I hear him cough and, rather than acknowledging the swirling pollen, I veer towards lung issues. I nag my husband about working out (not enough) and drinking Cokes instead of coffee (too many). Health insurance, life insurance, trusts, and wills now hold real estate in my mind.
In recent years, a few friends have endured the untimely deaths of their spouses. Some have suffered through illness or divorce. Children are grown and don’t visit often enough. Sunspots and wrinkles appear overnight. I’m living in the Golden State of California, land of the healthy and beautiful, and I am beginning to tarnish. I might as well just say it. We are aging.
Maybe I have too much time on my hands to obsess about mortality now that I am not ensconced in the stresses of corporate life. Who knows what destiny we’ll enjoy – or endure? I have my work. I exercise. I read. I do The New York Times crossword puzzle (brain games apparently help ward off Alzheimer’s). I drink too much (life’s too short), but I eat well. I see the world as a glass half full. I’m a-okay until the universe deems otherwise.
Years from now, when I’m idling on a porch by the sea, what will I look back on? Not jobs won or jobs lost. Not promotions (or those that didn’t happen). Not my envy about neighbors who have more (when we have plenty). Not my self-flagellation about weight. Every. Single. Day.
The rear view mirror of my life (a 1971 Mercedes 280SL mirror, please) will reflect the love that anchored me in serene and swelling seas. A family who loved me unconditionally even when I didn’t deserve it. Steadfast friendships. As Antonie de Saint-Exupéry said, “A fine cargo of experiences and memories” In short, a life well-lived, with an accent on the “lived.” These are the most valuable benefits of all.
My 75-year-young friend, Pat, told me today about receiving a phone call from the company that supports her email server. The representative said, “Would you like to purchase the 5-year contract? It’s less expensive than a year-long agreement.” Pat declined. “I have no idea if I’ll be around in 5 years,” she said. And then she laughed.
Hey, Pat, let’s laugh together when we share this involtini di melanzane. I won’t even count the calories.
RICOTTA-STUFFED EGGPLANT ROLLS
When voluptuous, dark violet eggplants aren’t striking a sculptural pose in my kitchen, they are thrilling me with their creamy texture and slightly bitter yet malleable flavor. Here they are wrapped around herb-infused ricotta and baked in a simple tomato sauce. Though technically a side dish, involtini di melanzane also makes an excellent light supper. Note: Don't skip salting the eggplant. Salt mellows the slight bitterness and pulls out the excess moisture that would make the filling watery otherwise.
1 large globe eggplant, about 1 pound
½ cup + 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil plus more for brushing pans
2 cloves garlic, minced
One 14.5 ounces can crushed tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, with juice
¼ cup finely chopped fresh basil
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ cup whole-milk ricotta cheese
¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat the broiler. Lightly brush an 8-inch square baking dish and a baking sheet with oil.
Cut off the stem end of the eggplant. Cut lengthwise into eight 1/4-inch-thick slices. Lightly sprinkle both sides of the eggplant with salt. Place the slices on a wire rack (place a dishtowel or baking sheet underneath it) or in a colander (place a plate underneath it). Let stand for about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a medium sauté pan over medium heat, heat 6 tablespoons of the oil. Add the garlic and cook until softened, about 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes, 3 tablespoons of the basil, and 1 tablespoon of the parsley, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens slightly. Season with salt and pepper. Spread a thin layer of the sauce in the baking dish.
Wipe the eggplant slices to remove excess moisture (do not rinse the slices). Brush both sides of the eggplant slices with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Place on the baking sheet and broil about 4 inches from the heat until lightly browned. Turn the slices and broil until lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and set aside the eggplant to cool for about 10 minutes. Decrease oven temperature to 375°F.
In a small bowl, combine the ricotta with the remaining basil, parsley, and olive oil. Spread 1 heaping tablespoon of the filling on each eggplant slice, leaving a ½-inch border. Beginning at the narrow end, roll the slice around the filling. Arrange the rolls seam side down in a single layer in the baking dish. Spoon the remaining tomato sauce over the rolls, covering them evenly. Sprinkle with the Parmesan. Bake until the filling is hot and the sauce is bubbling, about 30 minutes.