One morning, several weeks back, a friend asked whether I was looking forward to summer. We were returning from the morning school run, she making kind conversation, me and my youngest still hand in hand. I can't remember my precise words, but they mattered little, next to my tone which, were I giving myself the gauzy benefit of hindsight, was not exactly, shall we say, sunny.
Not exactly even civil.
So okay, it sat somewhere between a spit and a tooth-baring snarl. With a side of growl. And a double-dose of grimace. All well before 8:30 a.m. And this, to one of the best, gentlest people I know.
(I said sorry.)
What can I say. It was Madame Heat speaking. She's bossy like that, all elbows, yelly. I let Her shove me aside, that morning, before I could squeeze a word in edgewise.
Move over, Dragonlady. My turn.
Summer? Bring it on.
Because, beyond my knee-jerk kvetching, summer days are among those I most relish. These are the days I re-meet my peeps, after a schoolyear spent much apart. There they are, entirely their same selves, and yet. Not. Bigger. Richer. Better. Like a long-awaited sequel in an excellent series, utterly familiar, thrillingly new.
I am loving the first pages, looking forward to full chapters.
I'm looking forward to late afternoon, to its unusually easy slow tempo, not hustled and bustled and harried from school. To unhurried breakfasts, eaten at leisure, no clocks to watch, no place to be.
To time for games, Candyland to Catan, one on one; rounds of three; the always-interesting all-play.
I'm lapping up the luxury of summer reading, the long stretches of pages that these days allow. We've just wrapped the Clocks' first adventures under the floor, and their narrow escape through the grating. We're becoming acquainted with Ratty and Mole, elusive Badger, Wildly Unpredictable Toad. We're just creasing the spine of Meg Murry's first story, and returning, again, to Pergola Winsproggle, Crybabies, Show-Offs, all Piggle Wiggle's cast.
(We just celebrated our 18th [!] this Sunday, and twice that, again, is excellent by me. But I'm hopeless when it comes to books. Commit to just one? Pfft. Fat chance.)
Oh, also, Mary Poppins in the car. Not the candy-coated Julie Andrews incarnation, prim, yes, but essentially warm. No, the fierce P. L. Travers original, vain, brusque, often terrifying, far more free with a scornful sniff than a smile. She who makes butchers wish, at a glance, to disappear through a trapdoor post-haste. She who has friends like Old Mrs. Corry, who snaps off her own fingers to feed to young babes, and learned gingerbread from Alfred the Great, and glitters with such wizened, wiry-haired splendor, it's little wonder they couldn't cast her for the screen.
We are all loving errands.
I'm absolutely looking forward, for the first time, again, to letters magicking themselves into words. To hearing a brand new reader read to me. To that glittery lightbulb, bright as June, plain as day, that flicks on when one more rune becomes PARK, and MAKE, and GO DOG GO, and endless other irridescent, irreversible things.
We are still at that tremulous stage, more words unknown than known, eyes wide, confidence shaky. But they're yours now, I say, calm as I can. Yours forever, those words. For keeps. Imagine.
I'm looking forward to checking off a little learning of my own. Memorizing the state capitals, say. My school totally covered them in the fifth grade.
I skipped fifth grade.
It's about time.
I was looking forward to solving the Eni, but finallyfinallyfinally set things right, Sunday morning. It took months—off and on, mind. Now, I'm itching to scramble it, again. And if I don't exactly look forward to squabbles, which range from occasional to omnipresent, I appreciate* the time to mine roots and causes, excavate motivations, disentangle misunderstandings.
*Typically after 10 p.m., when all eyes are closed, all faces angelic, and nine hours of quiet all but guaranteed. In the moment? Appreciate's not quite the right verb.
To flowers. I am looking forward to flowers. The heat, the humidity, they love it so.
And I love them for their conversion factor, for turning so graciously swelter to wonder.
And cooking together, an unexpected surprise, not always their schtick, but so far, very much so. They pitched within days the pasta project. ("To celebrate the new Third Grader!" Indeed.) I'm always game to remodel the kitchen as armageddon, for the little lessons that accrue around a cutting board, green bean math, estimation, the quiet art of paying keen attention. Three sets of ten digits, still present and accounted for. And lunch, to boot! (Never mind the floor.)
And tomatoes. Definitely tomatoes, and cucumbers and eggplant and endless zucchini. I am always okay with endless zucchini. But I am now especially okay, and especially antsy, knowing its affinity for spinach pesto. And my affinity for the two together, tangled up in a jade-green, slurp-worthy heap.
The soul of this dish stems directly from my friend Shauna's latest, loveliest book. If you haven't had a look, not being gluten-free, bear in mind, neither are we. I bake two gluten-filled loaves every week. The pasta, up and down, is all eggs and wheat flour. Indeed, Shauna's audience is limited: to those love flavor, and food that sings, and meals that thrum, and words, laughter, life. My copy looks like a porcupine. A porcupine that, at a glance, rolls over and opens to page 178.
I don't know how often, this past month, I've made Shauna's Zucchini Noodles with Spinach Pesto. I do know I've lost count, always a good sign. This one's a marvel, a classic, a keeper.
The spinach pesto is straight-off-the-spoon stuff, excellent here and everywhere. Less pungent than its basil-based cousin, it is clean, bright, deceptively smooth. Which isn't to say mild-mannered, what with its kick of garlic, jigger of lemon, and heady parmesan-umami. I've taken to stirring it through scrambled eggs, and dipping in carrots, and cukes, and red peppers. Tonight, I demolished an entire fennel bulb, dipping wedge after wedge into the jade slurry. Pretty much the only thing I've ruled out is dressing plain old wheat pasta with it.
See, I had a batch of spinach pesto on hand when Shauna's book arrived. I'd made Mad Hungry's spaghetti with spinach pesto and ... didn't love it. The pesto was terrific, addictive, even, but stirred into noodles? Meh. It sighed, and faded, and I don't know, just fell inexplicably flat. It was sad. As was I. Until I spied Shauna's green-on-green ribbons.
Now, I don't ordinarily do bunny-eared noodles, vegetal "spaghetti", say, aswim in marinara, unmistakably squash. This is not that. Not even close.
This is zucchini, sized up and considered, made smart and suave and totally more-ish. "Sliced" with a peeler, the work of a moment, zucchini shows an entirely new side. The just-tender ribbons—I like mine barely steamed—are slender and silky and ridiculously fun. The spinach pesto, far from going dim, lights up in the company of zen zucchini. The latter's sweet meat complements the plucky green balm, terrifically. Sweet peas—I add peas, fresh or frozen—add welcome nubs of crisp pop. And pine nuts—just prep extra when making the pesto—scattered on top add toast and crunch.
Taken together, it's really something. Extravagantly rich, but not at all weighty. Hearty enough to constitute lunch. Quick enough to snack on, beside Play-Doh. This isn't apologetic zucchini, isn't I'm-not-really-a-noodle zucchini. This is apotheosis zucchini, vibrant, heady, nom-nom-nom good.
So yes, there is summer at its worst, broiling sun, bugs, unspeakable stick. Cross will happen. Forgiveness, asked after. But in the company of my favorite people, and bottomless bowls of lip-smacking green? I shake my fist at the nasty bits, dig in my heels, and look forward to the rest. Which, frankly, looks awfully fine.
Zucchini Ribbons with Spinach Pesto, Peas + Pine Nuts
adapted from Gluten-Free Girl Every Day, by Shauna James Ahern and Danny Ahern
I use a Y-peeler here, which delivers wide ribbons; a regular peeler works equally well. As written, I consider this a generous lunch for one; double or triple the zucchini, peas and pine nuts, to serve more; you will have enough pesto for 6-8 zucchini. Alternatively, refrigerate the extra pesto, and you're five minutes from a feast, several days running.
The pesto below is based on Lucinda Scala Quinn's, as that's what I had on hand. I have no doubt Shauna's original is excellent, as is her suggestion to top the whole with crumbled feta and sunflower seeds. (She also leaves the zucchini raw, which I suspect I'll find brilliant, right around late July.) I like my pesto heavy on the spinach and lemon. Begin with the low end of the range, and add more of either/both at the end, to taste. Similarly, toasted walnuts or almonds can be used in the pesto, in place of the pine nuts. I can imagine a little mint here. Pesto's endlessly forgiving.
for the zucchini:
2 medium zucchini
1/2 cup sweet peas
handful pine nuts, toasted
8-12 ounces spinach
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
2 garlic cloves
1/2 cup grated parmigiano reggiano or pecorino romano (2 ounces)
grated zest and juice of 1-2 lemons (2-4 tablespoons, to taste)
1/2-1 teaspoon kosher salt, to taste
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Make the pesto: Place spinach in the bowl of a food processor, fitted with a metal blade, and pulse 15-20 times to chop coarsely. Add pine nuts, garlic, cheese, lemon juice, and salt, and blitz 1-2 minutes, until solids are very fine. With machine running, drizzle in olive oil through feed tube, pausing to scrape and stir on occasion, until pesto is unctuous, irresistable and creamy. Taste for seasoning, and adjust salt, spinach and/or lemon to suit, bearing in mind zucchini will be mild, not as salty as pasta cooked in highly seasoned water. Give a final blitz, and set aside.
Prepare zucchini: Wash, top and tail your zukes. Holding a zucchini in your left hand, run a vegetable peeler from the top to the bottom, removing a long thin ribbon of veg. Repeat until you can peel no more, then flip, place flat-side down on cutting board, and continue to peel opposite side, until you can peel no more. I can usually ribbon around three-quarters of each veg. (I simply lay the remainder flat, slice thinly with a chef's knife, and add these first to the pot. Alternatively, save for soups, salads, or eggs.) Repeat with remaining zucchini.
Add 1/2" water and 1 teaspoon kosher salt to a medium saucepan, and bring to a rolling simmer. Place zucchini ribbons inside, beginning with hand-cut remainders, if using (they will be thicker, and placing them closer to the heat will enable them to cook in the same time as the thinner ribbons, up top), and placing peas on top. Slap on a lid, turn heat down to a gentle simmer, and cook 2 minutes, or until just-translucent. Do not overcook. Drain zucchini and peas into a strainer, shaking gently but well, and allow to drain 5 minutes more, shaking a few times, to remove all water. Return warm veg to pot, add several generous spoonfuls (around 1/2 cup) of spinach pesto, toss to coat amply, and taste. Add more if desired, stir again, tip onto a plate, and top with toasted pine nuts. Enjoy warm or hot.