Yesterday the wind blew hot and surly across the tall field grasses. Today the high dog days of midsummer have pooled around my feet. It is still but for the drone of heat-loving insects and the intermittent warning of a robin, the hissing of a house wren, the drink-your-tea-tea-tea call of the Eastern towhee. On the back porch, over the grill, the second brood of robin nestlings hangs its heads over the nest’s edge, mouths agape, figments from an old Western movie gasping in a vast, empty desert. The rest of the resident wildlife has not stirred since early morning. The cats lay flat on their sides on the cool concrete floor. I’m thinking of doing the same. It is dull, I am dull.
But there’s no time for listlessness. Summer is too short. This heat will fade, eventually. Soak it in, store it up. Get to work.
Beyond the windows the potatoes lie waiting, fat in their beds; the cilantro shakes its coriander seed-heads in the sullen breeze; the zinnias and nasturtiums shoot their neon pinks, reds and yellows through the garden; the chamomile needs picking…again. The hot peppers redden; the tomatillos set fruit; the peaches swell. The zucchini, cucumber, and tomato plants grow to gargantuan proportions as though transported from a folktale. The bean tendrils snake up their poles and along their fences, adding a good foot or more every day, it seems. All the colors and sizes are intense, immense, the garden responding to our hot, hotter summers.
I get up at dawn to work outside or at the stove until surrendering to cooler pursuits. This week I’ve cleared out the spent peas and favas, the bolted early lettuces but left the oregano and arugula flowers for the bees. Thank goodness I planted the tenderest greens in a cool, half-shady spot or they’d turn bitter and fierce tasting in this stretch of heat. I’ve harvested the last of the first crops of beets and fennel. The 120 heads of garlic are pulled and washed and now hang from the rafters, curing, sending their sweet scent into the warm air. Chamomile, lemon verbena, mint, thyme, za’atar and calendula keep the de-hydrator buzzing in the basement. This year’s berry and currant jams, the cassis fill their jars lining the shelves of the cool room. Blueberries and raspberries and cherries, pestos and broths are snug in the freezer. A half-summer’s work done. Next winter’s taste of now.
Yes, everything points to fall. The baby rabbit who lives under the potato leaves is not such a baby anymore. The swallows have left the nesting boxes to line the telephone wires down by the road. Any day now they will fly off and won’t return until spring. Bryan writes about eye-ing his potatoes and corn for winter storage, carefully doling out what can be eaten fresh, what needs to be saved for January. Kate is making pesto. I need to do more of the same. Much more of the same. I walk the gardens and orchard each dawn to plan the morning’s harvest, the evening’s canning, freezing, drying, storing.
But planning for fall also means planting for fall. The garden is in constant motion, a restless mosaic of the stages of plant life. In this heat wave it seems absurd to plant anything much less peas and favas, cilantro and lettuces, carrots and beets and fennel. But plant I do, careful to sow fast-growers like lettuce and basil and cilantro under the half-shade of the cherry tree so they do not bolt. Peas and favas go near sunflowers and tall tomatoes that will shade them from any intense heat of August but then will gather and hold the warmth remaining in September. Soon I’ll plant spinach and arugula, rapini and radishes under cooling shade cloth that I can replace with warming tunnel covers, the way I saw it done in Montreal’s Botanical Gardens, so that they’ll germinate and grow without burning up now and keep producing through the first frosts. We’ll have fresh vegetables deep into fall.
But as I keep an eye on fall’s approach and winter’s needs, I’ll revel in summer. Even in this heat. And that means eating raspberries and tomatoes the way a kid does– as we pick them, warm and perfect. That means serving fresh potatoes and plump uncured garlic and squash blossoms nearly every day. That means making cool cucumber soups and zucchini purees that not only keep up with the output from the too-many plants, but that delight the palate and make me glad that we’re right here, right now, at the beginning of August.
A Cool Recipe for a Hot Summer Day
Moroccan-esque Zucchini Puree
Inspired by Claudia Roden’s recipe in Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon
If you think you really don’t like zucchini or you’ve really had enough, try this puree, hot or cold (I like it cold)—it’s a great way to use the over-abundance of summer squash while beating the heat! The first time I made it, I didn’t tell my zucchini-loathing family what was in it and they loved it!
• 2 lbs zucchini, sliced into thick rounds
• sea salt
• 3 – 4 TB olive oil
• 2 – 3 garlic cloves (to taste)
• 2 TB soft goat cheese
• a handful of fresh cilantro, parsley and mint, mixed, minced (reserve a few stems for garnish)
• juice and minced zest of one lemon
• one small fresh hot pepper of any sort, green or red, seeded and minced
• 6 cherry tomatoes, cut in half
1. Place the zucchini rounds in a pot of boiling, salted water and boil until tender. Drain well and let cool a bit.
2. When cool enough to handle, squeeze the rounds gently to remove as much of the water as possible, and place in a food processor or blender.
3. In a mortar and pestle, mash together the garlic cloves and olive oil (if you like a lot of garlic, use the 3 cloves and the full 4 TB of oil) with a good pinch of coarse sea salt until they make a paste. Add to the zucchini.
4. Add the goat cheese, the herbs, the lemon juice and zest and the minced hot pepper to the mixture.
5. Pulse the processor until the mixture is a smooth puree. At this point you can serve it, chill it, or heat it—your choice.
6. Before serving, gently sauté the tomato halves in a bit of olive oil until they are soft but not falling apart. Divide the soup between six bowls and garnish the tops with two tomato halves each and some freshly cut ribbons of the fresh herbs and perhaps a tiny dollop of goat cheese. Dust lightly with cinnamon.
A version of this post was published in the July 28 issue of The Addison Independent.