Technically, summer began weeks ago, on Thursday, June 7 at 2:50 p.m. (Not that anyone was counting, weeks, days, minutes, nanoseconds...) But for me, summer doesn't really begin until we nail our routine. Finalize a schedule. Establish ground rules. File every last shred of school year schrapnel.
We are there.
Greetings from Week Two.
The backpacks have been moth-balled. The paper mountains, scaled. The lunchboxes, deep-sixed. (Two years of spilled crumbs and cock-eyed thermoses and who-knows-what-wedged-everywhere takes its toll on even the finest of boxes.)
But more to the point, we have pinned down our days.
The routine, it turns out, is a rigid one, an unbending adherence to rolling with it. "It" being the weather. "It" being impromptu playdates. "It" being the what-shall-we-do-today's? "It" is the ultimate variable, come summer, as fickle and free-spirited as pronouns get.
It is eating breakfast illuminated, because it's solstice season, and the light has gone all glow-y again. It is forts strung up, and hidden under for days. It is Mario, because Mario is family, around here. And because I placed second for the first (fist pump!) time. (Diddy Kong. He's my monkey.)
Some days, it's a short walk to our much-loved little library. Some days, geo-caching in the company of friends. Some days, it is pool jaunts (and the shampoos and empty bellies and wet towels that follow).
It is eating something from the garden, nearly every day. Snow peas, snap peas, herbs, salads, the last of the service berries. Broccoli. Our first broccoli! A modest head. Completely organic. Absolutely alive with cabbage worms. A-L-I-V-E. We're talking cabbage worm condo, rent control: zero. (I love broccoli. Loved broccoli. Hope to love broccoli again. After a few years. And lots of therapy.)
It is correctly identifying a beetle, directly from Peterson. A seemingly simple task, complicated by their bizarre typology. Something about body shape and antennae length and leg shape, rather than the clearly superior and obvious schema: colors of the rainbow, polka dots versus stripes, cute versus almost unbearably ugly. I persisted, in any case, and discovered that our darling yellow ladybugs are in fact spotted cucumber beetles. Spotted cucumber beetles with their sights set on my cukes and zukes.
Henry's piggy bank is now edging toward porker status, since I placed a five-cent bounty on their darling little yellow heads.
Some days, it is me, taking a big long deep breath, in order to answer "yes" to their paper mâché pleas. We do due diligence, draw up plans, talk options, until it becomes not just mess but problem solving exercise. Oxen, it seems, are more difficult to build out of newspaper, flour and water than, say, giant eggs.
Foil, for the record, makes a nice armiture, with many more limb, head and horn options than ye olde balloon. Should you happen to have barnyard paper mâché ambitions.
It is games, whenever we can manage. There has been epic Uno, and enchanted Yahtzee, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar Game, which is surprisingly all-ages. At least when proper drama accompanies the playing of the cheese. Mister X has been a bit slow getting off the ground. I have high hopes of tracking him down, this next week.
(Finding games suitable for 4, 7, 11 and almost-40 is always interesting, but interesting, in my experience, is always better than easy. Also, it leads to novel new rules, like sprinkling magic dust on the Yahtzee dice, and other creative recipes for inclusion.)
It is getting out into the garden, in pajamas, before eight, because the garden is something else in June. Lush, intense, brand new every day, a tiny jungle we can call our own.
It is avoiding the garden, all day, like the plague, for exactly the same reasons.
Those beans right up there? The ones halfway up the teepee? Those were last Friday's beans. These are this Friday's. Over the top. Literally. And flexing their muscles, if I'm not mistaken. This is an excellent thing in a bean. Not so much in the weeds, just outside the frame.
It is building, because there is always building. It is excavating rocks, from a kit or our dirt pile. It is library reading programs begun, and inked up. It's our first summer read, picked by guess-who, but eagerly being followed by all. It's re-reading, and re-loving, The Walrus and The Carpenter. Not all Victorian lit (I'm looking at you, Heidi) holds up to contemporary kids.
Lewis Carroll, Congratulations. And thank you. Fondly, us.
(Will we make it through this stack? Good heavens, no. But options are good, and a mother can dream. Because what, praytell, is parenting, if not boundless optimism, calibrated by crumbs?)
It is a bit of writing, lest the pencils get dusty. (In comic books, for starters, lest the natives get restless.) Some science, which pops up pretty much everywhere. Some numbers, to keep our math muscles strong. And if the day's problem is x = 3 kids + 2 friends, where x = 1 full afternoon of fun, then I consider my work done. Algebra doesn't get much better.
It doesn't, in other words, look much like what I'd planned.
And I don't mind a bit.
And I like it very much.
The thing is, I enter every summer armed, with ideas and lists and notions, pre-conceived. Since we schedule nothing save the occasional swim lesson, it always seems wise to have a few Plans. Schemes. Lessons. Diversions. Distractions. Shared goals. Just, you know, to be prepared.
This year, we planned a butterfly study. And got in one good session in before genuine summer kicked in. And shelved the rest, without a second thought, because mastering underwater nose bubbles is so the priority. Besides, the very idea of it was enough to see us through the raising of two black swallowtails, caterpillar through chrysalis. (Did you know they turn to soup while inside? Digest themselves and re-build as butterflies? Why oh why didn't Eric Carle include that page?) The pessimist might say it was all for naught. Me, I rather like having a plan B, on the off chance the "B" word comes up.
From where I stand now, the "B" word seems unlikely, about as unlikely as the timing of this next dish. But I put it out there, on the off chance you have asparagus, still. We do not, though that hasn't stopped me from buying more. I can't seem to bring a close to this asparagus season. Even if "this season" now stretches into Northern Canada.
This is why.
This is stir-fried asparagus and ginger, and this, I realize, doesn't look like much. That's okay. I didn't get into it for the looks department. I got into it because I grew a little weary of asparagus' unwieldy ways. Because asparagus arrives on the same train as open windows, first freckles, and still-pleasant sun, I tend to cook it quick and whole. Roasting is a given, on repeat all spring. Grilling, if I get up the gumption. Steaming, if we want to dip and swipe. I love whole spears, finger food, the whole harbinger thing. For the first twenty, thirty pounds, anyway.
But this spring, which stretched unusually long in these parts, I found myself craving bite-sized bits. Something I could spear with a fork. Something less awkward, less napkin-needy, less floppy-foldy-bendy-drippy. Something with better table manners. Something that would still honor all that is lovely in asparagus.
In the past, I've found few better shows of vegetable respect than a searing-hot, lightning-quick turn in my wok. The past did not fail me, this spring.
Asparagus is a wok natural, fairly uniform in width and fairly high in water content. The first time I stir-fried some spears, I didn't bother to blanch them, just cut the bunch cross-wise into bite-sized bits. They got a good sear, right off the bat, before releasing just enough of liquid to flash-steam their insides. By the five minute mark, they'd begun to re-claim their juices, which had taken up flavor and funk from the pan. This release-and-catch system that happens with vegetables is one of my favorite wok features. Things cooked this way go exponential, their inner selves being extracted, augmented, re-absorbed. At one level, it's all a little Doc Ock/Spiderman. At another, it's mind-numbingly good.
Caramelized and faintly smoky at the edges, just-tender and nutty within, they had that fresh, lively, still-flopping-about quality that all good stir-fried vegetables do. I thought them tasty. I ate the whole pound. And then I kept tinkering.
I remembered a stir-fried broccoli I once loved, with a full quarter(!) cup(!) of julienned ginger. It fell by the wayside, because it required blanching first. And it will stay by the wayside, because I'm still blanching over broccoli. But asparagus waved its long, lanky hand, volunteering to understudy the part. And now broccoli has no role to return to.
Have you ever stir-fried tablespoons of aromatics? It is a surprisingly elegant thing. The asparagus goes in first, to take the heat and cushion the blow, and pick up a good whiff of that storied wok hay. The aromatics—in this case, a tablespoon of garlic, and two of ginger—follow, and mellow, and metamorphose. They trade in their signature fresh bark and bite for something deeper, richer, more well-rounded. The garlic goes nutty and rich, with twinges of that muscular sweet you get from roasting. The ginger exchanges its heat for warmth, a fragrant, heady, bright warmth that lights up each bite.
Each bite which still, somehow, enunciates asparagus. For despite the aromatic windfall, here, there's no soy sauce nor oyster sauce nor corn starch to interfere. Absent glop, the asparagus speaks sweet grassy green clearly, overjoyed, not overwhelmed, by garlic and ginger. It is unexpected, and surprising, and wonderful. Rather like summer itself, actually.
Stir-Fried Asparagus with Ginger and Garlic
In my well-seasoned steel wok, one tablespoon of oil is plenty. If you don't own a wok, cast iron makes a good substitute. (Also, a basic carbon steel wok will be the best $20 you ever spend.) As with any stir fry, have all your ingredients cut and ready before beginning. This moves on and off the stove in under ten minutes. To double, simply prepare each pound separately, with a quick wipe of the wok between batches.
1 pound asparagus
1-2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil
1 tablespoon fresh garlic, minced
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
seasame seeds to garnish (optional)
Wash asparagus, shake off excess water, and remove tough ends. Slice medium spears into 1/2" lengths. (Alternatively, adjust cut size to spear size. For pencil-thin spears, slice into 1" lengths. For thick, stout spears, cut 1/4" lengths. The important thing is consistency, to ensure even cooking.)
In a wok or heavy skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil over high heat, until shimmering. Tip asparagus into hot oil, being careful of splatters. Let sit 30 seconds without stirring, then shake or stir well to re-distribute. Let sit another 30 seconds, undisturbed, then add garlic, ginger, salt and sugar, and toss. Turn heat down a nudge, to a still-hot high medium, and continue to stir-fry, stirring often, 5-8 minutes total, depending on spear size. (If garlic starts to brown significantly, add a bit more oil, and turn heat down a nudge.) Asparagus will be done when it is still mostly bright green, but beginning to caramelize in spots, and when ginger and garlic are golden.
Taste for seasoning, adjusting salt if needed. Serve immediately, with sesame seeds on top, if desired.