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the simple things come back to us
In the Summer Kitchen [Recipes]
The simple things come back to us. They rest for a moment by our ribcages then suddenly reach in and twist our hearts a notch backward. - Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin
Winter is the season that grounds us, where we seek out fire and light against the cold and the dark; summer is the season of air and water, soil and seed.
We can argue this point: winter gives us heavy food and the associated holidays and gatherings, and the histories that lurk beneath those gatherings. Old catastrophes creep from between the Christmas couch cushions like the tentacles of a live octopus stuffed into a bag and trying to escape; old catastrophes breathe the same air as sadness and hope and trauma, their synesthetic rattle reminding you of a particular dish, or the sound of a particular holiday song, or of the one family member who you knew would take you down one day when you were both adults or maybe even still children, thrust together twice a year for a celebration at once joyful and forced like a size nine foot into a size seven shoe. And the food: even winter food can be more complicated and prone to comparison and commentary. The brining of the turkey, the glazing of the ham, the slicing of the roast, the good St. Emilion that you take great pains to hide in the basement from the cousin who will mix it with his Seven-Up and call it a cocktail.
Summer is when the simple things return to us. It’s when the kids run into the water and you hang their bathing suits on the line, and they sleep into the late afternoon, leaving sand in the bed and in the bottom of the tub. Summer is when you take your mother-in-law’s ancient gardening knife — the one you found on a shelf in her garage right before you turned the keys over to the new owners after she died — and go out to a tangled patch of vine and leaf, cut some cucumbers and the zucchinis that got too big when you weren’t looking, cut some thyme from the herb box, run over to the corn stand before they close to buy six ears of Silver Queen. Summer is when you wake early to read Merwin on the front porch for an hour before the heat and the mosquitos, and nothing can touch you — not the eldercare hell that you’re living through on a daily basis, or the weird test results, or the ancient dog who has gone deaf, or the deadlines, or the witheringly terrible news in the paper — and when you bob around in the ocean, when the storms come and the storms pass. Summer is an uncomplicated time and it’s meant to be; there is a certain liminality that doesn’t exist at any other time of year. There’s the water and your friend’s dahlias and the beetles that decimate your roses and the broken Agway sprinkler that you meant to replace and the memory of the August between high school and college, and your decade-older upstate New York boyfriend who wore Jovan musk and puka beads and left a contrail of Marlboro smoke when he got up at four in the morning to leave your room in the employee quarters of the crumbling hotel where you both worked the summer you turned eighteen.
Summer is when you wake early to read Merwin on the front porch for an hour before the heat and the mosquitos, and nothing can touch you.
Cooking is intrinsically plaited to memory bad or good, and because of that, there are also certain summer dishes that I won’t go near: my aunt’s beloved ambrosia, the cold borscht that my grandmother served to me right before the divorce, the cold leftover sliced lamb that I ate for breakfast in the employee dining room after a night of underage drinking when I realized that, for eight weeks of working as a teenage lifeguard at the above-mentioned crumbling upstate hotel, I had not once heard from my mother.
Buying what I find at farmers’ markets rather than cooking with a plan-of-action makes everything about summer food more simple, and less fraught; Elizabeth David wrote a whole book about this. Forget the ambrosia or the sour cherry pie, unless you have a thing for tiny Brach marshmallows or sour cherries, the latter of which appear at markets for exactly eight seconds where I live, and when they’re done, they’re done. Forget the cold borscht unless you love it; I can’t choke it down. If you like it, great, but don’t plan to make your grandmother’s version because you won’t find freshly dug beets until much later in the season. Farmer’ markets sell what is seasonal; if you’re a vegetable gardener — even if you just have one big pot that you’ve filled with lettuce seeds and you’ve left it on your fire escape in the sun — it’s easier to hew closer to mindful kitchen simplicity than organized, structured cooking which, at least in my experience, causes nothing but strife. For hard planners — those among us who decide, for example, that we must make Salad Nicoise because it reminds us of that weekend in the south of France when we were in college, or the peach ice cream that we once had at a Dairy Queen between Atlanta and Athens when we were on our way to an August REM concert in the mid-eighties, or the blueberry pie that your great aunt made every summer weekend when you were a child — the flexibility required by summer cooking can be a threat to their sense of design and emotionally correlative organization and, therefore, security.
I don’t spend a lot of time planning what I cook during the summer; I just do it, with little connection to memory or history; it’s all about what’s fresh, and I’m too busy to ponder. The s**t is hitting the fan in my life right now; there have been health issues (me, wife, and dog), eldercare issues (frailty, harassment), work issues (finishing a book, finishing commissioned essays, waiting on writing contracts, planning my teaching schedule for the fall), financial issues. I have no inclination to fuss; summer food is good without turning myself inside out.
There are certain things that are a given in my house during the summer, and they’re not hard to come by. They make it possible to turn any market discovery into a small meal — who wants a big meal during the warm weather; I don’t — and very little needs to be done to or with them. They include
lemons (smaller, thinner skinned)
limes (smaller, thinner skinned)
fresh herbs (growing in a massive box on my deck)
hot red pepper (Korean, Italian, Thai)
anchovies (tinned, Portuguese)
good olive oil (single-source: I like Spanish or Palestinian)
red wine vinegar (nothing expensive)
unseasoned rice wine vinegar (ditto)
tamari (a reasonably good brand)
toasted sesame oil (a small bottle is fine)
chaat masala (pre-made, or make your own with Nik Sharma’s recipe)
garlic (actual garlic, as opposed to the paste in the tube)
tomatoes (not the giants, unless you’re making a sandwich)
sheep’s milk feta (even supermarket feta is okay)
chard (masses of it growing in my garden)
zucchini (masses of it growing in my garden)
cucumbers (masses of it growing in my garden)
lettuces (masses of it bolting in my garden)
That’s my summer kitchen foundation. That’s my little black pantry dress from June until early October. Whatever happens to any of those ingredients — on their own or in combination — when successful, ends up in a little leather notebook that I carry with me to rental kitchens wherever we go, in the event that my brain needs jostling. A few of my non-recipe recipes:
Baked feta with herbs: Drain and pat dry a 1 inch thick block of feta, put it in a small. baking dish, strew with fresh herbs (thyme, marjoram, rosemary), drizzle with olive oil and bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes until the top is brown. When cool enough to handle, crumble into warm pasta, or crumble and toss with chopped tomatoes, roasted vegetables, or corn boiled for 3 minutes and scraped off the cob. If your feta is super-thick, slice it in half width wise before roasting it.
Corn on the Cob with Chaat Masala: Suvir Saran’s extraordinary no-recipe-recipe. Slice a fresh lime into quarters. Boil the freshest corn you can find for 3 minutes and remove from the water immediately. Instead of butter, dip the lime wedges into small bowls of chaat masala, and squeeze/drag each wedge along the corn cobs.
Chard pie with ricotta: Separate the leaves from the stems; save the stems for another purpose. Stack the chard leaves on top of each other, roll them up like a cigar, and slice them at 1/2 inch intervals. Wilt the chard ribbons in a little olive oil with minced garlic, salt, pepper, and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Toss the chard mixture with half a cup of ricotta that you’ve drained for a few minutes in a colander, and a beaten egg. Roll out your favorite store-bought savory pie shell (or make your own), press it into a pie plate, and blind bake it for a few minutes. Place the chard mixture into the shell, cover it with foil, and bake at 350 for 30 minutes. Remove foil and continue for another 10 minutes. Serve room temperature.
Sliced cucumbers with tamari, sesame oil, and rice wine vinegar: Slice many cucumbers. If they’re big, peel them; if they’re Persian, or English, no need to. If they’re big, seed them before slicing; if they’re not, don’t. Toss in a large bowl with splashes of tamari and rice wine vinegar; drizzle with a little sesame oil and toss again. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds. Serve ice cold.
I cannot tease out summer and summer food from memory; it’s impossible. Still, its table is far less complicated than winter’s, and its heart twist less all-consuming because of the air and the light that accompany it.