Daniel Brondi, 48, born and reared on the Riviera, learned to cook at the age of 14, he says in fluent, mellifluous, accented English, "as a kind of survival."
"This was the year my Mum went to Marseilles to take care of her mother," Brondi recalled one recent morning as he offered guests strong coffee, French chocolates and cordial glasses of homemade sour orange wine ("Reserve Chateau Brondi, cuvee 1987").
"We were living in Toulouse, so I had to be put in a boarding school," Brondi recalls. 'I was supposed to be there for three months, until my mother came home, but I was only there for maybe 10 days. I couldn't stand the food. So I escaped."
Actually, he walked home (it took 10 minutes). But the upshot was that young Daniel attended boarding school by day, returned home at night, and cooked dinner for himself and his father, an army general.
"I didn't use any book. I didn't have any idea at that time that there were cookbooks," he says. "I was doing an imitation of what Mum used to do. Baked chicken. Rice with saffron. There was wonderful sausage (made locally). Simple things like that I cooked."
In the years since his great escape and culinary debut, Brondi, who has taught French at Cal State Fullerton since 1972 and at Irvine Valley College since 1980, has moved well beyond the simple dishes of his youth. As he worked in the spacious kitchen of his home in Fullerton, he noted with laughter a few other times when gustatory "survival" hastened his expertise: In the early '60s, serving his mandatory military service in Berlin, he tired of heavy German food and sought out markets instead of restaurants; ditto a few years later, when he came to the States to stay with friends in Terre Haute, Ind.
"Terra Haut eee !" Brondi said with glee. After checking out the Italian restaurant and the local steak house, Brondi discovered "this town had wonderful markets. Indiana has the most extraordinary tomatoes--after the French Riviera. And they have things really in season. In the spring, wonderful asparagus. And always, fresh eggs, fowl, rabbits. I cooked all the time."
Although he had planned to stay in the United States for just a few months, improve his English and return to France, Brondi was offered an assistant teaching position at Indiana University in nearby Bloomington. He accepted--moving from there to Seattle for his Ph.D. studies, then on to his job at Cal State Fullerton.
Since he arrived in this country in 1966, he says, he's been "a man with one foot in two countries." Each summer, Brondi travels to his family home in Antibes. And each fall he returns to Fullerton "because I love teaching. I love to help young Americans know and love France."
Asked to choose from his many recipes, Brondi decided to share with this column's readers his recipe for ratatouille.
"This vegetable dish is from southeastern France," he says. "When you see recipes for ratatouille, the reference is either to Antibes or Nice.
"Sometimes I order ratatouille (in the States), just to see how it is prepared. The biggest catastrophe is these dry herbs they add--thyme, basil. So the ratatouille is almost crunchy. Or they put in mushrooms, or cheese.
"Of course, there's nothing wrong with mixing dry herbs and vegetables and cheese," Brondi says. But, "that's not ratatouille."
1 1/2-pound eggplant (as small as possible; Japanese variety is best)
1 pound zucchini (again, the smaller the better)
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 large red pepper, coarsely chopped
2 large very ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 medium white onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, peeled
5 tablespoons virgin olive oil
1 small bunch fresh parsley (preferably Italian parsley)
Cut ends off eggplant and zucchini and remove strips of skin with carrot peeler, leaving half of skin on (eggplant and zucchini will be striped , lengthwise, when done). Cut into medium (1/2-inch) slices and place in large colander. Sprinkle with salt and let stand for 1/2 hour. (This will eliminate some of the water from zucchini so that it isn't mushy when cooked; it also takes some of the bitterness from the eggplant.)
Preheat oven to 375.
In heavy saucepan, put eggplant, zucchini, red pepper, tomatoes, onion, garlic and olive oil. Mix thoroughly.
Place saucepan in oven uncovered. Cook for 55 minutes or until vegetables are soft, stirring every 20 minutes. Add parsley and salt and pepper to taste; cook for another 5 minutes.
Can be served hot or cold, as a side dish, appetizer or stuffing for omelet. Keeps for 2-3 days. Serves 4.