Years ago The New Yorker ran a cartoon that is still one of my favorites: a psychiatrist sits behind his patient who is lying on “the couch,” the doctor’s mouth is open, and the caption reads, “Shoulda, woulda, coulda. Next!” Isn’t that great? If only it were that easy to think that way, to really be able to say, “Yeah, it is what it is. I am who I am. Now, let’s move on.” Not to mention that if shrinks really adhered to this principle a lot of people would save a lot of money.
I try not to spend too much time looking backwards and thinking, “what if I had done this or hadn’t done that?” Regret is a huge waste of time, if you dwell on it. Learning from it is the only way to go. I also don’t really believe in “shoulds” because if I did, I would be in big trouble. The list of things I should be able to do, have done, know, or care about is endless. And in my old age I have come to realize that for the most part, we all do what we want to do, so if there are things on the should list they are probably there because they are things that are not that interesting to you or that you don’t really care about or that you have little desire to do. For example, I don’t know how to drive and yes, I know it is a survival skill and yes, I know it is crazy that I don’t have a license. I could blame it on my past and say they didn’t offer drivers ed. at my school and in those days, like good New York City dwellers, my parents didn’t own a car. But that wouldn’t explain why both of my siblings learned to drive by the time they left for college and have always owned cars. So we’re back to the fact that I don’t really want to drive. Oh, and I’ve had plenty of lessons. There was the Taggarts Driving School six-lesson package I received for my 19th birthday (thanks a lot). The driver was a smelly, creepy little man and it ended badly when he told me to veer to the right on (a congested) Eighth Street and I veered to the left instead. Thank goodness for duel steering wheels. I tried lessons again six years later with a different little man, who wasn’t that creepy, but I found myself zoning out while we cruised down Columbus Avenue. My eyes glazed over and I was having an out of body experience. Not a safe way to travel. So I gave up. And I rarely think about it.
Football is another thing. Shouldn’t a red blooded American person know how to watch a football game? Know the appropriate time to cheer or groan? Not me. That game has been explained to me 100 times and I still don’t understand what a “down” is or why they seem to stop the game every five seconds. The fact is I think I just don’t care. Oh, and what about Prussia? Do you know what Prussia is or was? I took European History in high school and can’t for the life of me retain what Prussia’s role in the world was, who it belonged to, or what happened to it. Yet somehow I am able to remember that Madonna’s birthday is August 16th. How does my brain make those decisions? Could it be that I care more about Madge’s upcoming 52nd birthday than the history of the world? I really hope not.
There is so much more. I haven’t read For Whom the Bell Tolls or Moby Dick (despite being an English major), I’ve never taken physics or chemistry, and I still have trouble remembering the names of all nine Supreme Court justices. I’ve yet to go to the Grand Canyon, have only the loosest grasp of the major Jewish holidays and can’t explain the difference between “effect” and “affect.” See what happens when you think about shoulds? It’s like a race to the finish of the self-loathing 5K.
And of course there are the shoulds of the kitchen. Most people are surprised to learn that I don’t really cook. Yes, I could say it is due to the cozy conditions of my apartment and the fact that I’d rather not have my pillow smell like broiled salmon or sautéed shrimp. But really, I think it’s because I don’t enjoy it as much as I enjoy baking. Timing the preparation and presentation of an entire meal is so much more stressful for me than frosting a cake or even making a soufflé. Still, I’m ashamed I’ve never roasted a chicken or grilled a steak. And there are holes in my pastry repertoire as well. I realized the other day that I’d never made a tarte tatin. You’d think in pastry school we might have touched on that bistro staple but, no. And I don’t think I’ve sought it out myself because I’m just not that excited about cooked apples or pears. But this month’s Bon Appetit had a recipe that seemed so strange I just had to make it—a tomato tarte tatin. Who would have thought? And it is delicious! The acidity of the tomatoes is soothed by the creaminess of the caramel and the buttery-ness of the pastry. A little whipped cream doesn’t hurt either. And if nothing else, I just got rid of one of the shoulds on a list I have now realized is way longer than I’d initially thought. Taking personal inventory is a dangerous undertaking and this needs to stop. I have to remember I have no regrets. I think I need a slice of tarte tatin and a little Edith Piaf, “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.”
No Regrets Tomato Tarte Tatin
From Bon Appetit, August 2010
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1 3/4 pounds plum tomatoes (about 8 large)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 sheet frozen puff pastry (half of 17.3-ounce package), thawed, corners cut off to make very rough 9- to 10-inch round
Lightly sweetened whipped cream
Preheat oven to 425°F.
Bring large saucepan of water to boil. Cut shallow X in bottom of each tomato. Add 4 tomatoes to boiling water. Blanch tomatoes just until skins at X begin to peel back, 15 to 30 seconds. Using slotted spoon, transfer blanched tomatoes to bowl of ice water to cool quickly. Repeat with remaining tomatoes. Peel tomatoes.
Cut out cores, halve lengthwise, and remove seeds.
Spread butter over bottom of 9 1/2-inch-diameter, 2 to 3 inch deep ovenproof skillet (preferably cast-iron).
Sprinkle 3/4 cup sugar over butter.
Arrange tomato halves, cut side up and close together, in concentric circles in skillet to fill completely.
Place skillet over medium heat. Cook until sugar and butter are reduced to thickly bubbling, deep amber syrup (about 1/4 inch deep in bottom of skillet), moving tomatoes occasionally to prevent burning, about 25 minutes. Remove skillet from heat. Immediately drizzle vanilla over tomatoes.
Top with pastry round. Using knife, tuck in edges of pastry.
Cut 2 or 3 small slits in pastry. Place skillet in oven and bake tart until pastry is deep golden brown, about 24 minutes.
Cool tart in skillet 10 minutes. Cut around sides of skillet to loosen pastry. Place large platter over skillet.
Using oven mitts as aid, hold skillet and platter firmly together and invert, allowing tart to settle onto platter.
Carefully lift off skillet. Rearrange any tomato halves that may have become dislodged.
Serve tart warm or at room temperature with whipped cream.
Yield: 6 servings