Summer Food

The realization of a radical truth takes place in many ways, but often it seems like a surprise: You didn’t know something and then, all at once, you know it. This happened to me just the other night. I stepped out, late, to accompany Travis on his last potty of the day, and it was hot. Really hot. Not the romantic, Greek-isle-sexy-breezes kind of night, but hot. Once it’s still 90 degrees and over after 10 p.m., you know without a doubt summer’s arrived.

I have never been gifted with the loss of appetite over such trivia as weather. When utterly heartbroken or madly infatuated, I quit eating with the best of them. My smallest clothes belong to crises. However, most of the time I am a lover of food: fresh, leftover, restaurant-made or put together in my own kitchen; sometimes frozen, sometimes out of a can! I love food. Always have. But when your air conditioner is working hard 24/7 just to maintain a modicum of survivability, who feels like cooking?

A worthwhile gardening blog would now present you with mouth-watering images of succulent tomatoes, squash, peppers – home-grown foodstuffs with delicious names. Must I confess to you yet again that I can’t grow food? I said it years ago and I’ll say it again: I cannot, will not compete with insects and rodents for my food. Let those who are gifted in that direction make money from unruly gardeners like myself. Everyone has a place in the food chain.

This post is about a few of the things I like to eat when it’s hot. I’m not a recipe innovator; you can find great recipes from those people online. Two of the dishes do require some cooking, which is a sacrifice. But this first one doesn’t; it’s just a salad.

I am an ambivalent fan of Molly Wizenberg and her food blog, Orangette. I first discovered her through her book A Homemade Life, and have made a number of her recipes, loving all but a few – which is pretty good for any food book. Most of the time Molly manages very adroitly to avoid the preciousness that plagues many blogs – especially those devoted to the arts, including the domestic ones – but the time she wrote to complain about being stuck in one European country when she really wanted to be in another European country, I quit reading for months. I’m glad I returned in plenty of time to read that her baby’s head smells like strawberry jam.

One post I liked on Orangette was about a very simple salad made of cooked garbanzo beans, shaved Parmesan, and lemon juice with a few drops of olive oil. It was delicious, and it got me thinking. For a long time I’ve prepared a marinade of raw veggies to use in salads. Make the dressing first, shake the heck out of it a few times, wash and cut up the veg.

For the dressing: one peeled and smashed but not chopped clove of garlic in the bottom of an old honey jar; oil and vinegar (often balsamic); a good pinch of dried tarragon; salt & pepper; a squeeze of lemon; sometimes a dollop of mustard. Shake furiously, to help that garlic let loose its flavor.

Chop up whatever’s in the vegetable bin, dress that with the oil and vinegar, and serve it atop whatever greens are in the salad bowl. Red peppers, celery, carrots are standard. Cherry tomatoes, halved and seasoned with salt and pepper. Boiled potatoes or green beans are great; a ladle of baked Tuscan white beans in winter, or a can of rinsed garbanzos or cannelloni when the weather’s too hot to bake beans. Tiny cubes of sharp cheese. Chopped walnuts or pecans, or leftover toasted almonds from the green beans almandine. I imagine many people would slice a scallion or two, but I have a pretty hard time with raw onion-type things.

Once I’d tried Molly’s garbanzo bean lunch I thought, why bother with the salad greens? It’s not that I don’t like lettuce as much as the next person, though I probably don’t. But here’s where the real problem resides: ever since I was a child I have loved to eat while I read. It is a lethal combination, railed against by anyone who practices mindful eating or any kind of sensible diet. You’re supposed to savor every bite of food consciously, thereby avoid mindless overeating.

However, as I was telling my dental hygienist just the other day when she was saying I really ought to floss, it’s really too late to expect me to develop any good habits now. It’s amazing I don’t take up Marlboros and heroin.

Sadly, it’s hard to read while you are eating a salad full of lettuce. You have things you need to spear, and things you need to balance on the fork. With a salad, you might be needing to spear more than one object: a tomato and a piece of avocado, for example. Or lettuce, tomato, and avocado for the large of mouth like myself. This requires taking your eyes off the page, so that lunch seems to consist of a disjointed series of sentences. Not an insurmountable problem in youth, but at my age it’s not easy to remember what you read thirty seconds ago.

Solution? Salad you eat with a spoon. Laugh if you must, but I can put together a big bowl of this stuff and eat my lunches and dinners from that bowl for days, reading or watching TV to my heart’s content, hardly splashing any oily dressing on the pages.

I may have come to terms with the fact that I shouldn’t even think about planting tomatoes, but if the day ever comes when I can’t grow basil, I’ll hang up my gardening gloves forever. Pesto, pesto, pesto.

Start with fresh basil and Marcella Hazan. But first: cold liquid refreshment to help the process along.

You can always find my favorite pages in any of my books. The cookbooks’ pages are stained; all other much-loved books wrinkled from accompanying me to the bath.

I like my pine nuts toasted, and all you need is a sprinkle of salt in the bottom of the frying pan to keep them from sticking – nuts of all kinds have plenty of oil on their own.

It seems to be the sine qua non of all food writing that one be able to take photographs of oneself engaged in the process. I suck at it. However, once everything’s tossed in the food processor, you have all hands free to snap away.

If you have never tried Hazan’s pesto with
potatoes and green beans,
do yourself the favor.

Although the dish sounds impossibly
rich (pasta and potatoes?),
the green beans manage to cut the richness
somehow. Being an American,
I cook my green beans for much less time
than Hazan recommends –
she thinks we like our vegetables
to taste like grass.

For years I looked around for a yummy-looking recipe for cold sesame noodles. My sister Katherine introduced the concept to me decades ago in a Chinese restaurant on the Berlin Turnpike. I hesitated to go the all-out tahini route, because I just don’t love tahini that much (I even prefer hummus made with white beans).

Last year Serious Eats (an excellent food blog) followed their dude Kenji through a month of vegan eating. It seems to me that professional foodies take a ridiculously harsh view of people who don’t like to put pieces of dead animal flesh into their mouths; so it’s refreshing to see what imaginative cooks do when animal products are crossed off the shopping list.

Kenji’s “Spicy Peanut Noodle Salad” caught my eye right away, and I’ve made it many times since.

Nice fresh pourable peanut butter from Central Market.

Put in all the things. Don’t you love the smell of fresh limes?

A mix of sweet and hot peppers sliced into a thin julienne to go with the spaghetti noodles.

Taking the seeds out of the cucumber will keep them from getting the dish all soggy.

Oh-oh, it’s starting to look all out of control.

Better tame that spicy salad in a nice cool plate. All it needs is a sprinkle of chopped peanuts and a cold beer. Have it in the fridge for an afternoon when the thermometer on the patio looks like this:

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