I call this time of the year, this month of September, the "bridge month." When I made pies for a living, I called them "bridge desserts," those slices of jammy sweets that'd have one foot definitively in fall and the other stubbornly in summer. That's always how I feel come September: eagerly anticipating the changing light of the new season, but also so very hesitant for the long days to creep away. And so, today, a warm weather recipe we can all nurse for a good month more: a silky, simple gazpacho that we had for lunch (and dinner) many times last month. And given our amazing tomatoes this year, I'm hoping for a few more rounds. I went many years without making gazpacho at home; I always find that it falls into one of three camps: the good, the bad, or the ugly. And most recipes I found in the past were firmly up for Ugliest Gazpacho of the Year Award -- which wouldn't matter if they were really delicious, but that was never the case. Now how could you mess up gazpacho, really? I find that the recipes that call for bread blended into the soup always end up murky and off-color, and just not at all appealing. I don't particularly love a lot of onion blended into the soup itself, and I've seen a great many recipes that are heavily spiced with chile seasonings and it always baffles me as to why we can't just let the tomatoes shine. If you're buying ripe, in season tomatoes you need little else.
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.
A triple berry summer crisp made with oats, quinoa flakes and hazelnuts. Summer in a skillet.
My good friend Keena was working in India for the last few months and just returned to Seattle, eager to experience as much Pacific Northwest summer as possible in September. I'm with her on this one: It just so happens that towards the end of this month, the farmers markets I've been doing will also come to an end, so things seem like they're both simultaneously gearing up (hike! picnic! beach!) and wrapping up at the same time as I also feel a sense of wanting to cram in as much as I can before the days start getting noticeably shorter. And truly: there's no better recipe to commemorate such efforts than these fresh corn grits with oil-poached summer tomatoes.
I had a different kind of post planned for today. I'd wanted to talk to you about measuring your own success and how the markers of success can be tricky. I can imagine that post, and I think you would've liked it. Heck, maybe I'll still write it. But this afternoon I worked the farmers market and witnessed a few things too good not to mention. The Marge Granola booth sits right next to a woman who sells beautiful flowers. In my weeks working next to her, I've learned a lot. I know that red dahlias are the most popular. I also know that they last four days. I know what wild amaranth looks like in all its fluffy stalkiness, and I can pick out the best lily in a bunch. I'm often gifted a few stems at the end of the day, and have so loved placing them all around the house. Each week a new color.
Yesterday I looked up and realized we're into the last half of July. Already. And I had one of those inevitable panics where I feel like we haven't been hiking enough, we haven't done any camping or road-tripping or picnicking. Sam and I used to devote Sunday mornings to visiting one of our favorite bakeries and reading the paper -- and then moseying into Ballard to shop at the farmers market. But now that I bake all day on Sundays for Marge, that tradition has slipped by the wayside. And I feel the same thing happening with the season this year. While I honestly wouldn't want to be anywhere other than Seattle, our summer can feel pretty short (it really doesn't get going until the beginning of July). And on those gray, dark February days, I want to make sure I've gotten in some good hiking, camping and picnicking. This whole grain skillet crisp is a good place to start: while we didn't take it out picnicking, I did take it out into the backyard and had a very generous slice right out of the skillet. Slowly. At 9:30 p.m. when it was still light out. So really, when you consider those moments, July could be worse.
We're back! After a restful few days in Lake George, I ended up flying home while Sam spent a little time with his family in New Jersey and a few days in New York City by himself before taking the train all the way back to Seattle (a solid four day journey). If you know Sam, this isn't surprising; he loves trains. When he's gone, I quickly revert back to my single gal days of eating veggie quesadillas for dinner (over and over) and staying up working later than I'd like. We would talk on the phone often as Sam would narrate his very full days in New York City and the stops and layovers he had while on the train. After a few days of me lamenting the fact that I wasn't there to experience it all with him, he encouraged me to ditch the quesadillas and do something special for dinner. See a movie. Go to the museum for just an hour. In short: I needed to get better at dating myself.
Our days are a shuffle between yes and no, between obligations that must be tended to and doing something for ourselves to maintain our curiosity and excitement. To being a good partner, friend, daughter, sister. A negotiation, a tug and release, a push and pull. Oftentimes the pendulum swings drastically to one end, where work overtakes the day-to-day shuffle and dinner dates and lake walks and calls with old friends take the backseat. Then there are the moments when there are house guests, obligation emails, car headlights to replace, mouse traps to set and dentist appointments to keep. Work gets pushed aside, you start feeling guilty and become acutely aware of this funny thing called balance. When referring to the fullness of her summer days recently, Kelsey from the lovely blog Happy Yolks wrote: "We are living the length and width of our days." I love this sentiment for its deliberateness (hey, Wednesday, I'm going to live the heck out of you!). For me lately, it's not as much about camping and hiking and taking advantage of the lingering summer sunshine, but about taking each day and trying to squeeze an increasingly stressful work life, a little play, time with Sam, an actual home cooked meal or a trip to the grocery store into each little nook and cranny of a day. Without going crazy. Or making Sam crazy. Or both.
We left for vacation on the day after I went grocery shopping in a wool sweater. June was definitively not summer here. According to everyone I talk to, it never is. And truthfully we were both just trucking along throughout the whole month, we had little time to complain or wish for something more. We had planned a mini camping trip all the way into ... our backyard, but had to cancel due to chilly rain. But the second we returned to Seattle, you could sense something changed. People in the airport were tee-shirted, Brandon drove us home with the windows slightly cracked, and the next morning big, bright sun shone through the curtains in our bedroom. Summer in Seattle has arrived--and we have fruit pies, galettes, a booming garden, iced tea, and salads for dinner to show for it.
I'm writing this post to you today on the porch of my mom's lakefront cabin in upstate, New York. In the past few years, this spot has come to mean summer to me. Sure, I've made many wonderful summer memories that dated far before my mom started coming here, but these days I feel like summer really starts on the porch here. Time slows. The daily itinerary involves morning coffee, porch-reading, dock-reading, and discussion of what to do for dinner. That's basically it. Sometimes this is punctuated by a swim or a run or a soft-serve ice cream cone. Or a long walk down the road. A most welcome change of pace from what our daily itinerary has looked like in Seattle recently (work, work, work, eat, work). Now we've arrived happily to the land of lingering.
There are moments when I'm truly happy we don't have cable. This week, a time that finds us amidst the Facebook fiasco, is one of them. Even without TV, I feel like I can't escape news of the IPO, stock prices, shareholder reactions, and future projections. But in last Sunday's paper I read something that caught my attention. Mark Zuckerberg's now wife, Priscilla Chan, made a request of him before moving in together: 100 minutes of alone time each week. And a vacation each year. My first reaction was one of mild shock: only 100 minutes?! I turned to Sam and told him about these agreements that are becoming more and more popular amongst couples -- the drive to tell each other what you need from the relationship. The New York Times compared it to kind of an emotional prenup. It all sounded a bit formal and calculated to me. Wasn't this depressing, I asked Sam? He glanced at me with a look that said that it really wasn't at all. In fact, at that very moment, we were having our version of 100 minutes.
The past few weekends have been busy ones, filled with house guests, window-box planting, and quite a few writing projects. Sam and I both love our house so much, and having people over always heightens that -- sharing the breakfast nook in the mornings and seeing the living room fill up with more than just the two of us. I love an excuse for a mid-afternoon stroll through Fremont, and a reason to fill up on chocolate samples at Theo. Of course, house guests must eat, so there's always Vietnamese food at Green Leaf and later at Tamarind Tree, beautiful salads at Sitka and Spruce, pizzas at Delancey, drinks at Ocho. Then on Monday, after a trip to the airport, there's a comparative quiet and a noticeable lack of Theo chocolate, tofu spring rolls, and Dark and Stormy's. Enter this weekend: just the two of us, garden planning and patio-sitting at our neighborhood bar. The sun was out, the breeze was warm, and sometimes beer just sounds good at 3 p.m. It was on these walks that I realized, yes, spring may have arrived in Seattle.
It's undeniably September, but I'm going to refrain from writing that kind of a post. On evening runs, it's getting darker just a touch earlier and, like clock-work, summer is kicking into swing full-force in the Bay Area. We're good for Indian summers and we're also known for forgetting they happen each and every year. We all walk around shocked that it's hot in September when it's always hot in September. So while I'm excited for all that fall brings, let's look back at summer for just a second and then talk about cake, shall we?
So apparently it's June. And maybe you're in a part of the country that's been having more summery, balmy weather than we have had here in the Bay Area. Maybe you've already been grilling and have bought yourself a new pair of flip-flops. Because I know it's happening out there. I've been eyeing some sweet J. Crew sandals myself and am thinking about swimsuits, soft-serve ice cream and canoes over the 4th of July weekend. But right here, right now at my little school-house desk, I haven't been seeing too, too much of that.
Have you walked into Staples lately? Well, I strolled in right before closing a few night's ago and was struck with a whole in-your-face Back to School extravaganza. Yikes. How is July almost over? Thankfully we're all about Indian Summers here in the Bay Area. But it did get me thinking that I should do some planning to make sure I squeeze in everything I want to do before September shows its face. I was inspired to make a Summer List by Molly who was inspired by Maria. Both jotted down things they wanted to eat, feel, and think about while the days are long and the evenings are warm. So here's mine. I encourage you to jot a few things down, too. And while you're at it, have a drink. Isn't that what summer's for? I recently discovered Pimm's and a quick and ruthless obsession was born. If you don't know Pimm's, it's a gin-based liquor that's a little bit citrusy, a little bit spicy, but extremely light and crisp. I sip it straight, I add it to bubbly water and squeeze in lemons from my mom's tree, I throw a bit into ginger beer or iced tea and give it a brisk stir. So in addition to your list, you can mix yourself up a quick Pseudo Pimm's Cup, my version of the original that's a tad bit bubbly, less sweet, and a little stronger. Just the way I like my drinks, as you already know. So here's to making lists, drinking summery drinks, wearing flip-flops every day, reading bad magazines, and not stepping inside a Staples until (at least) September.
Do you ever play the 'if only' game with yourself? It goes something like this: "if only I had a Mini Cooper, I'd be happy" or "if only I'd studied harder, I would've gotten into a better college" or "If only I had a bigger apartment, everything would be fine." Of course you do. We all do. My 'if only' game is kind of more like a neurosis and an obsession rather than a fun hypothetical consideration. The earliest I remember it showing its ugly face? 5th grade. All of my friends brought those packaged pies from the grocery store -- the ones filled with bright yellow lemon filling, gooey chocolate pudding, or glowing fake cherry. My mom packed me carrots, hard boiled eggs, and healthy sandwiches. I was convinced my life would be better if I had pies in my lunch. I'd be happier, certainly. I remember eying those pies on a daily basis and wondering what the hell was wrong with my family. If only.
We had a bit of a heat wave in the Bay Area this past weekend. Saturday, in particular. There's nothing like coming off of a long flight from China and having your typically foggy city greet you with blazes. I mean really, there was no easing into summer. But it's no problem. I've gotten my cotton skirts out of storage and plan on wearing them all summer long. That and flip-flops and high ponytails. There will be iced coffee in the mornings and lots of leg-dangling in my mom's pool. What is a problem, however, is even thinking about turning on the oven to bake during the summer. But I've found a solution. Its name is slump. Do you know slumps? If not, you should. I'll introduce you.
It strikes me as very odd that I've never written about ice cream here. This is because it's my very favorite food of all time. I won't admit how frequently I eat ice cream each week--hopefully family members will practice restraint with their comments on this particular post. But really, ice cream makes me very happy. Growing up, Bon Boniere was our little local ice cream shop downtown. Sometimes when I'd get home from school, my mom would promise that if I was lucky, maybe my dad would feel like going out for a cone later. Then the obsessing would begin: M & M or Bubblegum? It was like my mantra as the Brady Bunch wrapped up and dinner time grew near. I'd hear my dad pull up the driveway and know that I should give him a few minutes to put down his briefcase before I bombarded him with the all-important question of the evening: can we go?
The availability of good peaches is starting to wane...but not completely. Summer's not quite over yet in California. To buy fruit for canning (or anything, really), my new trick is to go to the farmer's market around 12:30. This is the magic time when vendors start putting things on sale. I love supporting local farmers, but I also love saving a few bucks. So this jam was my first do-it-myself batch. You may remember I wrote about a jamming class I took last month where we made a wonderful strawberry jam, but we did it in a class environment with an instructor readily available for each question on consistency, timing, and processing. This afternoon, it was just me and Oprah. But I set out confidently--in fact, I broke the first cardinal rule that Jordan Champagne told us that night in class: as a beginner, never mess with the recipe. There are important PH considerations with canning, and usually with jams you're o.k., but you need to understand the necessary proportions of sugar to fruit before you start playing around. But every recipe I found had equal amounts fruit to sugar, and I hate overly sweet jam. But I also hate sugar substitutes and am really attracted to jams that don't use pectin. There's something about the old fashioned 'simmer and stir' method that just feels right. So I researched numerous recipes, and decided to take down the sugar content and increase the amount of lemon juice...and voila: a chunky, delicious peach jam.