It was Hour Three or maybe Seven of a full-on effort to move Zoë's bedroom, a project long-discussed and long-postponed. At one year and twenty pounds when we moved to Ohio, Zoë handily won our home's smallest space, a slender sliver of a room which, owing to a lack of closet, doesn't even qualify for the prefix bed-. But it had length enough to fit a crib, cheek-to-jowel with a dresser, like two Brooklyn brownstones, with space to spare for a light switch above and a tiny trash can below. Barely.
Breadth is another question.
At 80" across, it just fits one flat me, so long as I keep my arms close to my side. Also, the roof slopes at a steep angle, the jaunty sort real estate pros call charming. It really is charming, and cozy besides, with its 32" aisle for adults to walk upright. 32" shared by a bed, and a dresser, and that trash can. Also, a small armada of stuffed friends. Call it 12". For years, I've called it, fondly, a shoebox. Problem is, the shoe keeps growing.
At 5 1/2, Zoë's crib's long gone, and the toddler bed, picked up to buy time, looks more like Ned's bed with each passing day. It was time.
So yesterday we heaved and hauled and schlepped and shoved and generally made chaos as we emptied the (former) office into the (very narrow) hall, clearing the way for Zoë's new room. (The office small, also, but less small than the shoebox.) And everything was coming along swimmingly (if claustrophobically), until I went to move the desk. Which arched its wooden eyebrows, dug in its pine heels, and announced it wouldn't be exiting any pre-WWII doors anytime soon.
I coaxed. I cajoled. I angled every which way. It wouldn't budge. Nor, for an awkward moment, would I.
Defeated, I winkled my way back into the wreckage, sighed a ragged sigh, and got to work. Me, my Phillips head, and thirty-two screws, holding fast to those four balky, bulky desk legs.
It wasn't so bad, as I knew it wouldn't be, once I finally set out to dismantle the thing. Half an hour later, I was back in the door jamb, tilting, adjusting, m-a-n-e-u-v-e-r-i-n-g my way through. We made it, this time, the desk top and I. Barely. But through. Then I walked the three short feet across hall, and assembled the desk all over again.
Twenty-four hours earlier, Saturday, I'd found myself cussing out the sun. Well, not cussing, exactly; life's too short for such stout wizened words. But stating, repeatedly, in an elevated voice, "I hate summer. HATE IT. Hate hate hate it!" There might have been fist-shaking involved. Blushing, definitely. I counsel my children often against the H- word.
Naturally, I had an audience.
For what it's worth, it was two big white welts on Henry's cheek that led to my outburst. We'd just doused him in mosquito spray, having learned our lesson earlier in the week, when he'd logged seventeen bites between neckline and hairline. Seventeen. Not counting arms and legs. And he's not even my most-nibbled child.
I was peeved. I railed.
Summer's my Winter. I know this about myself. I write long, pixillated post-its to remind me. And yet every year, right around now, I find myself flattened by it all. The screamy sun, the too-bright sky, the mosquito armies that make outside feel ominous. Like stepping out deserves its own John Williams soundtrack. I crack. I lose it. And then I laugh.
I mean, who screams at summer? That's like chewing out the Easter Bunny.
Sometimes you go to walk through a door, slam-dunk, easy-peasy, and you cannot. Jamb's too narrow. Desk's too big. Summer's just its same old self. You have to back up, examine the angles, contemplate alternate routes, compromise. You fold up the world, first this way, then that, origami reality into feasability. You part things out. Adjust. Dismantle. Remove screws or expectations, as appropriate. And on your second pass, or maybe your seventeenth, you negotiate the corners and though tight, they are possible, and you are through.
That was my more measured reflection, anyway, as I sat sprawled on the floor, setting desk legs back to rights. It took a full day, and some snipping of flowers, and a skeeter-beating bicycle ride, and soup. Clarity rarely comes on demand. But by Sunday, I could see it. The soup helped.
This soup, this homely magisterial zucchini soup, is the stuff happy minds and Mollies are made of. When the weather dipped into pleasant last week—high seventies, rain, faultless, really, despite my stubbornly gripey self—I wasted no time in pulling out the soup pot. Because soup is my solace. And solace aids corner vision.
This soup is a mash-up of memory and recipe, one part childhood summer, one part non-existant Italian heritage.
My mom made, most years, a late summer soup of tomato cooked down with great heaps of zucchini. I remember loving it, perhaps owing to the generous spoonfuls of sour cream we dolloped on top. I don't have her recipe, for I'm sure there wasn't one, save the urgent need to transform the garden's glut, somehow, into supper. My own need is pure appetite; my plants baroque, but barren. (Darn chipmunks.) So each week I fetch pounds of green logs from the market, most of which wind up here.
It is hard to overstate the simplicity of this soup, or the expansive deliciousness, or the possibilities. It's a straightforward matter of aromatics—onions, garlic, parsley—softened in olive oil, then subsumed by tinned tomatoes and three (!) pounds' chopped zucchini. Broth is added to loosen things up, plus parmesan rinds, for rumbly savor. Thirty minutes of simmer, The End. Accustomed as I am to long drawn-out soups, it's almost anti-climactic.
Until you taste it.
There's a lovely rich roundness, thanks to the olive oil, a full third-cup, and don't think about skimping. Italians, I've learned, aren't shy in these matters, a habit especially suited to soup. The oil ferries the aromatics' flavors about, indoctrinating every vegetable in sight. The parmesan rinds follow suit, adding their own nutty, saline smack. Both almost emulsify with the broth, lending the stuff a tremendous swagger.
Gutsy results from humble inputs: I love that in a soup.
Also, this: the way this soup honors zucchini. So much zucchini cookery—mine, included—is about reducing squash to its smallest self. I'm on that train; I appreciate that talent. I don't, though, want to miss its many others. When you simmer zucchini in a simple broth, both sides benefit, win-win. The famously water-rich veg releases its ample juices, lending the broth a distinct sweet. Meanwhile, the spoon-size green nubbins go tender, then soft, then beyond, to a state sometimes called melting. They also go old-camo ugly. No matter. They taste sublime.
And this: I love the soup's second day, and better, the third, and you get the picture. Because when you warm it again on the stove, the broth reduces, the solids slump, the parmesan rinds slough off golden nuggets, and the the whole veers more toward stewy each day. The first, thin, soupy day is good. The fourth, thick, intense day is majestic.
And finally, this: the versatility. This soup is that favorite pair of jeans, the ones that not only fit but flatter, that not only advertise comfort but mean it, that go as well with that ratty old sweatshirt as that excellent thrifted Tahari. Gorgeously flexible. Scatter over chickpeas, or thick curls of parmesan, or bright parsley, or all of the above. Bits of brown rice, chewy, softly sweet, are pretty wonderful. Pesto—spinach, basil—a hefty splodge, stirred loosely in, satisfies completely. Whole milk yogurt plus flaked almonds are unexpected, and fantastic. One night, we boiled small cubes of potato, and sizzled up one minced fenneled sausage, and topped the bowl with a spoonful of each. That was almost unspeakably good. I suspect we've only just scratched the surface.
Summer's still got wind in her sails, and it may not be soup weather, yet, where you are. But zucchini's a stalwart, here for months, still, and Fall is just around the corner. A little something, then, to negotiate whatever corners may come your way.
adapted from memory, and Italy al Dente, by Biba Caggiano
yield: 6-8 generous servings
As is my habit, I plonked several generous parmesan rinds into the pot. As is their habit, they seeped their gorgeous salty-parmesan-umami into the broth. I highly recommend them. As to broth, I also highly recommend the cooking water from beans, if you're inclined to cook beans from scratch. I happened to have a pot of chickpeas on the stove the same day I first made this soup, and drained the bean broth right into the soup pot (win-win!). Bean broth has a fantastic flavor, sweet, earthy, salty, savory, and from the beans, some body and backbone. You can (and I do) freeze bean broth, since I rarely have the foresight to prepare both on the same day. Finally, my mom's soup used grated zucchini, a variation I intend to try. It was outstanding.
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 large (or 2 small) onions, minced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped
3 pounds zucchini, ends trimmed, cut into 1/2" dice
1-28 oz. can plum tomatoes, chopped
2 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
plenty of freshly ground pepper
several large parmesan rinds
5 cups bean, vegetable or chicken broth
splash of vinegar, if desired
toppings: parmesan shavings; slivered basil; pesto (basil, spinach, any sort); chickpeas; brown rice; farro; olive oil; steamed green beans; whole milk yogurt or crème fraîche; flaked almonds; oil-crisped croutons; nothing at all.
In a large heavy pot, such as a dutch oven, heat oil over medium heat until it shimmers. Add minced onion, and cook until translucent, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes. Adjust heat if needed to keep it from coloring. Add garlic and parsley, stir, and cook until fragrant, 2 minutes. Raise the heat to high and add the zucchini. Cook 1-2 minutes, stirring regularly, coating well with the oil and aromatics. Add tomatoes, broth, parmesan rinds, and plenty of salt and pepper, stir to loosen solids, and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low, cover pot, and stir occassionally, 25-30 minutes, until zucchini are meltingly tender but still maintain their shape. Taste. Adjust salt and pepper until the soup sings, deep and rich and savory, and add a splosh of vinegar for brightness, if desired.
Serve, topped any of the above toppings, or nothing at all, save a broad spoon and hungry belly.
(Reheats, for the record, beautifully. And keeps in the fridge for 4-5 days with equal grace.)