recipes # 26 and 27; tomato salad and peach crisp
For the first time in his life Luca is dreading the end of summer. For a kid who loves school his summers have been fun enough but nothing like the one that is now sadly and rapidly waning. And for the first time in my life I am not dreading the end of summer so much as I am plunged into a deep anticipated mourning.
When I was a child, I hated summer; the endless stretch of days, the blistering heat of Brooklyn thick with the inevitable boredom. Aside from the occasional week or two at sleep away camp, my siblings and I would spend summers at home doing pretty much nothing unless you count driving our mother crazy as an activity. Using the heat as an excuse, we sat around the house all day – napping, killing roaches, complaining and fighting with each other – until she threw us out without much caring where in the inner bowels of Brooklyn we ended up as long as it wasn’t within earshot of her.
Sometimes we’d actually manage to trudge over to the public pool. There we’d fight for space in which to feel any semblance of coolness and bump into giant floating cockroaches that looked dead but were just cooling off in the water. By August we stopped going out altogether. Impervious to our mother’s irritation, we’d sit inside watching through the window as the Puerto Rican kids in their bathing suits and sneakers played in the spray of freezing water from the fire hydrant.
Nowadays for better or for worse, parents plan their kids’ summers week by week. We approach summer with lowgrade panic, looking by mid-May like deer in the headlights of the oncoming eleven weeks of free time. How will we give our kids a healthy, fun summer full of activities plus give them some down time while somehow managing to get any of our own work done? And how much money is it all going to cost?
This summer I didn’t get much work done but it was worth it. Jim was off for three months starting in May, and our mid-June trip to Italy and Spain seems now to have been just the beginning, not necessarily the apex, of a summer rich with experience. Later we went to Cape Cod to see Luca’s beloved cousins on Jim’s side and then drove up to the farm in Vermont where my sister Lexi lives with her partner Art. In between Luca and Jim went camping in the Sequoias and Luca went to various day camps, did gymnastics and spent hours in the pool and in the sun.
I suppose it is a hallmark of a good summer that a parent (or a mother anyway) should be brought to the edge of her comfort level watching her children do things she didn’t know they could do. Among the things I watched, calmly or otherwise, Luca do for the first time were diving into deep water, kayaking in the sea far from shore, ziplining and doing flip turns in the pool. He bottle-fed a lamb, ran sheep from one paddock to another and collected fresh eggs from a hen. On the beach at night he made s’mores over an open a fire and then did somersaults in the sand while his more practiced cousin did cartwheels and back flips. He hand picked blueberries and then with Lexi made the most delicious cobbler I have ever tasted. He paddled a canoe, not just to paddle around but to arrive at our campsite on an island in the middle of Lake George, NY in the aftermath of a thunderstorm.
If I hadn’t been brought forcibly to the edge of my equanimity at least once it would mean Luca wasn’t playing hard enough. On Lake George I watched Luca swim from one island to another island two football fields away in deep and choppy water. There were currents and wind and Luca, following Jim and Art, was nowhere near land. What happened to my cautious boy, the one who is more adventurous intellectually than physically? “Isn’t that a little far?” I croaked to the air. I took deep breaths and remembered Art saying: “If I can see him I can get to him.” Still, I couldn’t help muttering to myself “Am I supposed to be OK with this?” Luca reached the far shore and waved to me from across the distance. I could tell even from his tiny head that kept disappearing behind the waves that he was smiling and I pretended to be more proud than scared. When he came back Luca told me he had been fine out there. “Whenever I got tired I just rested on my back,” he said breathlessly. I had had no idea he knew how to do that.
This was a whole new world for Luca, and I have spent my summer as a bystander to his new, more physical and courageous self. While traipsing through major European cities had kept him in the familiar terrain of his mind where he compared the Italian words with their Spanish counterparts and asked questions about medieval history, getting cooking water from a lake required a different kind of resourcefulness. Using one’s body rather than one’s reason to solve a problem turns out in the end to do much more than make the body strong.
At a rocky gorge in Vermont Luca stood for long minutes on end up to his knees in icy water. I wondered what he was thinking about out there, whether he was observing tadpoles or the pattern of submerged rocks or whatever little boys look at while standing in freezing cold water. It soon became clear that his mind had wandered from the physical world around him because he broke his reverie with: “Daddy, what’s a soliloquy?”
He had somehow been reminded of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which he had been reading at the time and perhaps this place had reminded him of Huck’s outdoor world of camping and fishing. Perhaps arriving at his question was only possible by first observing the tadpoles and the rocks and standing in this very spot with his legs getting numb on the slippery rocks. It is a beautiful aspect of the meandering mind that it’s movements are totally private, so I’ll never know how he came to ask this question at this moment in this place. In any case, Huck meets up with some actors and that is where Luca read the word that popped into his mind here where the natural world was opening up vistas both external and internal and where there was enough peace, quiet and time for a lazy, wandering mind to do its work.
All this traveling and ziplining and swimming and making time for our wandering thoughts have meant that cooking has been distilled to its simplest form. We have become masters of the five-minute taco. We toss a corn tortilla in a pan to heat, throw some grated cheese on top along with some chopped peppers (hopefully spicy ones), some black beans maybe, add some avocadoes and fresh lime juice and call it dinner. Still, Luca eyes Fanny at Chez Panisse from time to time and picks out a recipe he wants to make, one of the summer recipes that he has been waiting for.
Luca wanted to make peach crisp in the dead of February and apricot jam in March and I’ve had to tell him that he’ll have to wait. So now we are racing to get to the summer recipes before it’s too late and we have to wait until next year. We missed the window during apricot season for me to overcome my fear of making jam (all that sterilizing and boiling is too intimidating). But just when we had a nice crop of fresh tomatoes in our garden, ones that had not yet been bitten it two and left to rot by the squirrels, Luca announced that he wanted to make Alice Waters’ Tomato Salad. So I picked the tomatoes, supplemented them with some nice ones from the farmer’s market, and when I had them laid them all out on the counter Luca said he didn’t feel like making the salad after all. This is how it goes these days: he says he wants to make something and then once all the ingredients are laid out on the counter he says he’d rather go play. Then I say that I’m not going to make whatever it is he’s picked out because the plan was for me to be making something else, so if he wants it he has to make it himself. And then he wrestles with himself, goes back and forth a few times and spends a good long while agonizing over how to manage his time before sighing deeply and saying “Ooooo-Kaaaay.” Once he is engaged in the act of cooking, he starts enjoying himself again.
He made the salad, a twist on a Caprese with tomatoes, mozzarella and a Basalmic dressing. He ate it along with some pasta aglio e olio and declared that he didn’t like the salad much. This was a first. He is usually very impressed with his own results. But I think I understood what he meant. There is something about tomatoes, when eaten raw, that is just… mushy. I can only eat a few bites, even of the best heirloom tomatoes, before the texture becomes unappealing. I have come to realize that Luca’s food dislikes are all about texture and nothing to do with taste. He doesn’t like mealy or mushy things, no matter what they taste like.
After dinner we watched “Sounder,” part of the ongoing Friday movie night series at our house. Luca loves it because watching movies (all head, no body) is pretty much his favorite thing to do. He will sit through anything with rapt attention and is only now learning to distinguish between movies he likes (anything with Buster Keaton, “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones”) from ones he doesn’t like (“Toy Story 3″). I like it because I get to pick out movies I want him to see and that aren’t the usual Pixar fare. Recent selections have included “The Bicycle Thief” (pronounced “sad” by Luca) and Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid” which had him laughing so hard we kept having to pause the movie so he could catch his breath.
The other day, Luca said he wanted to make Alice Waters’ Peach Crisp, another summer dish, and we happened to have all the ingredients on hand including a big plate full of fresh peaches mixed with a few apricots. I washed them and laid them on the cutting board whereupon we went through the familiar, tormented dance of Luca wanting to do something else instead and me saying OK fine and then him saying that no, in fact he really did want to make the crisp but wanted to finish playing his airport game and couldn’t decide what to do because he wanted to do both things at the same time and me saying he would have to make a choice. He left the room and I thought that was the end of the crisp. But then came stomping into the kitchen with a scowl on his face. He grabbed a knife but I grabbed it out of his hand and looked him in the eye. “Uh-uh,” I said. “We don’t cook like that. If you’re not in the mood, fine. We don’t have to have the crisp. But if you’re going to do it then you have to change your attitude.” He calmed down but I could tell he was still mad at leaving behind the airport he had laid out so carefully on the living room floor.
We got out the flour and butter and sugars and once Luca’s hands were in the sticky mess of it all his spirits lifted. He ground the mixture together in his fingers and then licked them all. Once he had washed his hands again, he got to work chopping the peaches and the apricots. The knife went through them like butter and once Luca chopped right through the pit. “Look! I cut the pit in half!” He showed it to me and started asking questions about what pits are made of and why they are woody and is it because they come from trees and are made of wood. As anyone who knows me can attest, I am completely ill equipped to answer questions of this nature. Once when we were dating I asked Jim if all plants came from seeds and I have never in fifteen years been able to live that one down.
The crisp went into the oven, Luca went back to landing his 747 at London Heathrow and a little while later we had tacos with poblano peppers and some grilled baby zucchini. When the crisp was ready we waited for it to cool and then dug in. Even without cream or ice cream (the one missing ingredient), it was delicious, a perfect combination of tangy and sweet.
As I ate I admired Luca’s taller, tanner, stronger body and the utter gorgeousness of this late summer boyhood. Watching him get happy in ways I never imagined has been better than anything. He has a little swagger now and goes around lifting things, including me, to show how strong he is. One more week, I thought, and he will be back at school doing math problems and catching colds.
Yesterday Jim, Luca and I had the last of the peach crisp for breakfast, heated with a dollop of yogurt. We ate in near silence, relishing the taste of the tart and creamy yogurt mixing perfectly with the sweet tang of the peaches and apricots, and savoring our dessert for breakfast as a sublime celebration of the last tastes of summer.