To Eat: Simple Green Salad with Cherry Tomatoes, Rigatoni with Summer Tomato Sauce, Peach Upside Down Cake
To Drink: Mojitos, Red Wine (and Italian Sodas for Abra, who insists on drinking something special alongside the adults)
Local ingredients: Roma tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, lettuce, mint, basil, carrots, peaches
I am a planner by nature, a reality that extends to nearly every area of my life, including the kitchen. Rarely do I ramble aimlessly through grocery stores or veer from my shopping list, and for years I’ve developed the habit of fastidiously preparing dinner menus a week in advance. I am aware that this picture does not paint me to be a very fun-loving or spontaneous person, which is something I worry about, and I harbor a secret fantasy that, someday, I will shape-shift into someone who glances at a pile of disparate ingredients and creates the perfect dish, or invents recipes out of thin air. I marvel at people like my best friend, Heidi, who dreams up menus on the fly, rarely consults cookbooks, and seems to intuit just what she needs from the aisles of the supermarket. She is also a woman who does not own a single cookie sheet, which does not deter her from making cookies on a pizza stone, and I can’t help but admire this devil-may-care attitude when it comes to cooking.
Something I find problematic about summer gardening is the unpredictability of the harvest. One day all of the tomatoes on my plants are green and the next the stalk is teeming with five pounds of fruit. So it was that last Friday I found myself with a huge haul of ripe Roma tomatoes, literally bursting at the seams, and no plans for dinner. After skimming my cookbooks I found a tomato sauce that cleverly used the dregs of the vegetable drawer, a hearty version made with diced carrots, onions, celery and garlic. I spent nearly an hour painstakingly peeling, seeding and coring my very small Roma tomatoes, which are the same shape and just a little larger than pear tomatoes, during which time I decided that this was entirely too much work to enjoy the spoils alone.
Our trustworthy friend and dinner companion, Tim, eagerly accepted a last-minute invitation for an early dinner on the patio. That morning I had made a beautiful peach upside down cake with an overabundance of fruit from a friend’s yard, which sat gleaming on the counter. A quick trip to the store and a visit to our cherry tomato patch yielded a simple but delicious salad. I plucked some mint from my patio planter to make mojitos, muddling the mint and sugar together in the bottom of small vintage canning jars, my favorite kind of glassware, and when Tim came strolling up the driveway with a bottle of nice red wine I knew we were in business.
I hadn’t started the day with designs to host a dinner party, as casual and impromptu as it was, and it dawned on me what a rare gift this is, to be able to assemble a last-minute meal, prepared at the peak of freshness, and have an invitation eagerly accepted. It seems that we are all so busy, our schedules stuffed to the gills, leaving little time for happenstance to happily interfere. Recently, when inviting friends to dinner at our home, we were forced to push out our plans for two months, given harried schedules. It tugs on the innate planner in me, giving me too much time to think about it, and by the time the dinner rolls around what is supposed to be a casual meal has bloomed into a multi-course affair that provokes anxiety rather than the joy that is should.
We cannot plan when the tomatoes will decide to blush crimson, and the swollen harvest of a summer garden forces us to act spontaneously, to place our planners and menus to the side for the day, to say “yes” to the innate pleasures of a simple, delicious meal spent in the company of good friends. And when we do that, we are saying “yes” to a certain kind of life that asks us to move slowly and deliberately, where connections are placed squarely in the center, where the seasons of our world and our life become palpable.
Yesterday marked the unofficial end of summer, but while the evenings are still warm I encourage you to make space in your calendar to gather some local ingredients, throw together a casual dinner, and invite a few friends over, with no greater plan than to enjoy and be together.