In the introduction to the Summer chapter of my cookbook Whole Grain Mornings, I talked about my approach to summer cooking — how it should be easy and effortless. How ironic it is that with all of the beautiful produce and fruit in the markets, summer meals are usually the ones that feel the most haphazard and thrown together. I used to get down on myself about this, wondering why I never took advantage of all the beautiful squashes and tomatoes and fresh herbs, making more complex meals or interesting new recipes. Instead I often rely on simple dinners of sliced tomatoes, cheese and good bread or big leafy salads with homemade buttermilk dressing. Dessert is often a simple bowl of berries or a scoop (or two) of homemade ice cream. I think moving to Seattle a few years ago changed the way I think about summer cooking. I’m no longer hard on myself or set any major expectations for kitchen goals or recipes to tackle. When it’s light until 9 or 10 p.m. and you happen to have the warmest June on record, the picnic table in the backyard is too inviting to pass up and standing at the stove can … wait. Plus, what better way to celebrate all of the beautiful summer produce than doing very little to it and letting it speak for itself?
That’s what this Summer Squash Pasta with Ricotta Pesto and Tomatoes is all about: simple, delicious, summer “cooking.” We’ve eaten this twice a week now for the past few weeks, mixing up the add-ins and the type of pesto — some nights making a cashew pesto, other nights experimenting with a kale and arugula version. This recipe today uses a creamy, summer-worthy ricotta pesto and fresh little grape tomatoes. It doesn’t require any cooking and, this past week, we discovered on a rather impromptu trip to Orcas Island that it’s easy to make on the road, too. And even more satisfying, perhaps. One of the things I most love about this blog is the way I can look back through the seasons and years and glean a sense of what that time felt like for me, judging by the food I was eating, the things I was baking, the stories I was telling. If there is just one recipe that will speak to the way we ate this summer, this is it: We can’t get enough.
I first got the idea for these summer squash “noodles” from Kimberly Hasselbrink’s book, Vibrant Food. She has a recipe for the squash cloaked in a Green Goddess dressing and I bookmarked it and began experimenting with the noodles as more of a template, using different sauces and a variety of vegetables and cheeses. I know many of you are staring down a glut of zucchini or summer squash right about now — or will be in a few weeks — and I can’t imagine a better way to use it up.
As for the pesto in this recipe, it is from Nina Plank’s The Real Food Cookbook that I mentioned in my last post. I’ve been excited to dive into one of her recipes and out of all the simple main dishes and beautiful salads, this creamy ricotta pesto is the first thing that spoke to me. It’s a nut/seed-free pesto which originally had me skeptical, wanting to add walnuts or cashews, but I trust Nina so I made it just as written (except I did use walnut oil in my version instead of olive oil). Pesto purists would likely call it more of a creamy basil sauce than a true pesto — and they’d probably be right. Regardless, it’s a little slice of summer in a bowl.
The pesto is super versatile: it’s wonderful as a dip for fresh vegetables, a creamy sauce for pasta, a spread for sandwiches — we’ve even mixed a little into soft scrambled eggs. And we discovered recently that it also travels well. As I mentioned, we snuck away to Orcas Island mid-week for a little getaway. In truth, the land of wedding planning was feeling a little tense and we needed to get away from our desks and lists and email. We stayed in a little cabin at Doe Bay (I can’t wait to return and stay in a yurt!) where we read a lot on the porch, soaked in the hot springs, and had lazy mornings the likes of which I haven’t seen in some time. They looked a lot like these photos: foggy and cool, coffee in hand.
Around noon, the fog would burn off to reveal stunningly blue skies and we’d pick up and stumble into the day. We hiked Turtleback Ridge, drove to the top of Mount Constitution, and rented paddle boats at Moran State Park. There was ice cream and naps and a lot of quiet. We both settled in so quickly that we ended up booking one additional night because we couldn’t bear to head home just yet.
As for food, our cabin had a little, tiny kitchen and we brought some things along with us: coffee, fruit, eggs, bacon, bread, and ingredients for this zucchini pasta (I told you: dedication!) We also explored a bit on the island: While I’m a loyal convert of the quiche at Cafe Besalu here in Seattle, I think the quiche at Brown Bear Bakery trumps it. And the wood fired pizzas at Hogstone were delicious after a long day in the sun.
But, really the highlight was the noodles and the quiet time away. The picture below is from the picnic table right outside our cabin. We did well with the Prosecco that night, and decided to add bacon to our squash pasta (goooood idea!). I hope you like the recipe and I hope you’re finding a chance to sneak away for a hike or drive or ice cream cone this summer, too.
For the Pesto:
For the "Pasta":
To make the pesto: Place all ingredients in the food processor and blend until smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning as you see fit.
To make the “pasta”: Slice the squash into very thin strips using a mandolin, julienne slicer, or spiralizer (see note below). If you’d prefer, use a vegetable peeler for wider, thin strips. Place squash in a medium bowl and toss with salt. Place squash in a colander and let sit for 25 minutes, allowing the excess water to start to drain away. Using a clean kitchen towel or your hands, work in batches to squeeze the moisture away from the squash. Place in a medium serving bowl.
Toss zucchini noodles with 1/2 cup ricotta pesto. Fold in tomatoes and parsley. Taste and season with additional salt and pepper if you’d like. This salad is best served the day that it’s made; I like to serve it immediately with crusty bread and cold wine, preferably outdoors.
Note: I broke down and bought a spiralizer last month to help make little veggie noodles. I was hesitant at first because we really don’t need any new kitchen appliances or tools, but it’s relatively inexpensive and we’ve been loving it. Alternatively, you can certainly use a mandolin or julienne slicer.
Glimpses of Spring
We returned home from San Francisco on New Years Eve just in time for dinner, and craving greens -- or anything other than baked goods and pizza (ohhhh San Francisco, how I love your bakeries. And citrus. And winter sunshine). Instead of driving straight home, we stopped at our co-op where I ran in for some arugula, an avocado, a bottle of Prosecco, and for the checkout guys to not-so-subtly mock the outlook of our New Years Eve: rousing party, eh? They looked to be in their mid-twenties and I figured I probably looked ancient to them, sad even. But really, there wasn't much sad (or rousing, to be fair) about our evening: putting Oliver to bed, opening up holiday cards and hanging them in the kitchen, and toasting the New Year with arugula, half a quesadilla and sparkling wine. It wasn't lavish. But it's what we both needed. (Or at least what we had to work with.) Since then, I've been more inspired to cook lots of "real" food versus all of the treats and appetizers and snacks the holidays always bring on. I made Julia Turshen's curried red lentils for the millionth time, a wintry whole grain salad with tuna and fennel, roasted potatoes, and this simple green minestrone that I've taken for lunch this week. Determined to fit as many seasonal vegetables into a bowl as humanly possible, I spooned a colorful pesto on top, as much for the reminder of warmer days to come as for the accent in the soup (and for the enjoyment later of slathering the leftover pesto on crusty bread).
It turns out shopping for wedding dresses is nothing like they make it appear in the movies. Or at least it hasn't been for me. Angels don't sing. Stars don't explode. Relatives don't cry. There isn't a sudden heart-stopping moment that this is, in fact, "the one." To be honest, I always knew that I wasn't the kind of gal for whom angels would sing or stars would explode but I did think I'd have some kind of moment where I could tell I'd found the best dress. Instead, my mom flew into town and we spent three (yes, three!!) days shopping for dresses, and since then I've been back to the stores we visited -- and I'm more undecided than ever. Tomorrow morning I'll return with my friend Keena to try and tie this business up once and for all. Cross your fingers.
When I was single and living alone in the Bay Area, I made virtually the same thing for dinner each night. I ate meals quickly while in front of the computer. Or even worse: the television. This most often included what I call "Mexican Pizzas" which were basically glorified quesadillas baked in the oven until crispy. Sometimes, if I was really feeling like cooking, I'd whip up a quick stir-fry with frozen vegetables from Trader Joe's or a mushroom frittata using pre-sliced mushrooms. Mostly, though, it was Mexican Pizzas -- a good four or five nights a week. Today, thankfully, dinner looks a lot different. Meals in general look a lot different. How would I explain that difference? I think that ultimately how we feel about our life colors how we choose to feed ourselves and the importance that we place on preparing our own meals.
Today was 75 degrees in Seattle and it seemed the whole city was out and about drinking iced coffee in tank tops and perhaps not working all that hard. When we have a hit of sunshine like this in April (or, really, any time of the year), we're all really good at making excuses to leave the office early -- or, simply, to "work from home." I just got back from LA last night, unpacked in a whirlwind this morning, and took Oliver to meet up with three friends from our parents group at the zoo. The only other time I'd been to the Seattle zoo was once with Sam a few years ago when we arrived thirty minutes before closing and ended up doing a whirlwind tour -- sprinting from the giraffes to the massive brown bear to the meerkat. The visit today was much different: we strolled slowly trying to avoid the spring break crowds and beating sun. I managed to only get one of Oliver's cheeks sunburned, and he even got in a decent nap. A success of an afternoon, I'd say. Coming home I realized we didn't have much in the fridge for lunch -- but thankfully there was a respectable stash of Le Croix (Le Croix season is back!) and a small bowl of this whole grain salad I made right before I left town. It's the kind of salad that's meant for this time of year: it pulls off colorful and fresh despite the fact that much of the true spring and summer produce isn't yet available. And for that reason, I make a few versions of it in early spring, often doubling the recipe so there's always the possibility of having a small bowl at 1 p.m. while the baby naps in the car seat, one cheek sunburned, windows and back door open -- a warm breeze creeping into the kitchen.
On Monday our little family of three is headed to the airport at 6 am to board our first with-baby cross-country trip. We'll be visiting Sam's family in New Jersey for a few days, then renting a car and driving over to meet up with my family at my mom's lake house in the Adirondacks. Sam's younger sister and her kids have yet to meet Oliver; my grandpa has yet to meet him, and Oliver has yet to take a dunk in a lake, see a firefly, or spend quality time with energetic dogs -- of which there will be three. A lot of firsts. This week my family has been madly texting, volunteering to make certain meals or sweets on assigned days while we're at the cabin and it got me thinking about really simple, effortless summer desserts -- in particular, ones that you can make while staying in a house with an unfamiliar kitchen and unfamiliar equipment and still do a pretty bang-up job. I think fruit crisp is just that thing.