Really, it's so appropriate these helenium bloom right here, now, smack dab in the busy that's back-to-school. They're the poster child—children—for our days. Messy. Full. Blurry. Wild. Vivid. Glorious. Maybe just a little chaotic. Also, that blaze orange can wake the sleeping dead. No small matter, when rise-and-shine rolls from noon back to 6 a.m.
Always, at summer's end, I go Jekyll and Hyde, a contradiction of thrill and grief. Thrill at the thought that after ten weeks without, I might actually catch NPR in the car. (What happened these past three months, anyway?) The possibility that my car, still sporting a small Maine beach, might be sand-free by Halloween. The notion that maybe, just maybe, I might sort through the stacks sitting everywhere. The ones I stacked up the last week of school.
And, but, more: the realizing that we're wrapping yet another round of DIY days. Days which, though long, and sometimes too long, are always, in sum, never long enough.
Cue the mourning. And the busy.
Because if school's going to insist on starting before Labor Day—and honestly, is that even legal?—then our only recourse is to live half a summer in the final days before that first bell.
And so between the tracking down of lunchboxes and the dusting off of backpacks, the updating of calendars and the marshalling of Ticonderogas, the resumption of after-school snacks and the audacity of bedtime, we just packed it in.
We played with friends two, three, four times per day. Back to back, side by side, end to end, all the time. We had more play dates in the past two weeks than, quite possibly, the entire summer prior.
As it should be.
We picked peaches. Ate peaches. Baked peaches. Repeated. And fitted in an entire reading of James and the Giant Peach when one look at the calendar betrayed my plan to plow through six more books before school commenced.
Roald Dahl, like cream, always rises to the top.
We finally did projects planned for last June. Got back to the butterfly wing found before Maine. Examined the rocks picked up in Maine. Washed the eight loads of laundry brought back from Maine.
Sighed deeply, then began conniving about when/where/how to get back to Maine.
We ran around in bare feet. Climbed trees. Played games. At ten in the morning, at two in the afternoon, just because, for now, we could.
We washed and spun and dried and plucked a small-to-middling mountain of basil. Made pounds of pesto. And an unholy mess. And affirmed, once again, the enduring truth that Things Are Less Strange When Eaten On Saltines.
And we talked of the lemonade stands not yet set up. And I thought of the paints not yet pulled out. And lamented the bike rides intended but untaken.
And it did, as it always does, become clear to me that we'd never, ever get it done. "It" being every last fun un-done thing I imagine ought to fit into a summer. "Done" being a word synonymous with silly, and nonsense and irrelevance and myth and motherhood.
And it did, as it usually does, dawn on me that school is no hard stop.
That there are still hours galore, around the edges. That margins are often more interesting than middles. Maybe always. And the margins are ours. That there's time yet to follow curiosities and indulge interests and plunge into pages. And, to gorge ourself on tomatoes.
Where we are, we have another good month of ridiculous cherry tomatoes, maybe two. Ridiculous because they sit somewhere, taste-wise, between the sun and swagger and candy. They're the kind that are nothing but juice and joy. The kind you chain-eat like starlets once smoked. Justonemorejustone morejustonemore*squirt!*justone...
The imposters of January, while useful for dip trays and roasting and pasta and change-nothing children are, I'm afraid, a non-starter here. Thick and simple, they have no soul, and no place in this salad. Save them for the aforementioned. And save this salad for summer's last hurrah.
Okay, then. Those tomatoes are the only hard bit, the waiting for them, all year long. Once in hand, all you need is a shock of fresh parsley, a cup of green lentils, some onions, some mustards. And an audience tolerant of passing the platter back to you for seconds, for thirds...
You'll simmer up those lentils—du Puy, flinty and lovely and firm when fully cooked—until they're just tender to the core. Twenty minutes. Twenty-five, tops. Whilst they burble, you'll chop a fistful of parsley and mince half an onion, tiny-tiny, to set aswim in vinegar. (I've never been a fan of the raw onion. Ever. Until I finally heeded advice to soak it briefly in a nice acid bath. Inexplicably, all the harshness and bite and indecent affrontery of the raw onion disappears—seriously, splits, vanishes—after a short quarter-hour. I can't explain it. I don't understand it. I must check my McGee. Right after more lentil salad.)
Because see, what happens next is you toss those warm lentils in a basic vinaigrette laced with—get this—mustards. Plural! Mustards. One tablespoon each, dijon and grainy, stirred into the ordinary oil-and-vinegar routine. This, my friends, is what revolution looks like.
Like a heap of sweet sharp chin-dribbly tomatoes tumbled over a bed of calm savory lentils, cut with the smart kick of parsley here, the sugared crunch of onion there, and everywhere, that mild racy righteous mustard-tinged vinaigrette. It's a hits-every-button sort of thing. Comforting. Sparkling. Can't. Stop. Eating.
Our first batch, we ate alongside slow-sizzled sausages, which I highly, highly recommend. Our second batch, I tossed into a heaving bowl of arugula, laced with steamed green beans and walnuts by the fistful. No photo, though. Inhaled on impact. I highly recommend this more. Our third batch, well, I'd best sign off. There are tomatoes still on the vine. There's time yet, I tell you. Away with us both.
Tomatoes, Lentils, Mustard Vinaigrette
adapted from It's All Good, by Gwyneth Paltrow
serves 4 as a main course, 6 as a side
Excellent straight-up, this same combination rocks a bowl of arugula and toasted walnuts (last night's leftover green beans optional but ace). If your children eat mustard vinaigrette, you get a gold star. Mine wouldn't dream of it, but would and did enjoy plain lentils and halved tomatoes served alongside steamed rice.
1 cup green lentils (lentilles du Puy)
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon grainy coarse seeded mustard
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar (or lemon juice, or other mild vinegar)
1/2 large onion, diced small
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups sweet, local cherry tomatoes, halved
1/4-1/2 cup flat Italian parsley, chopped
Bring a medium pot of well-salted water to the boil, add the lentils, and reduce heat to low-medium, to maintain a steady simmer. Cook until lentils are just tender, 20-25 minutes. Taste several to test. Drain lentils.
While lentils are cooking, finely dice onion, place in a wide-mouthed lidded jar, and add vinegar and 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Set aside. (This takes the bite out of the raw onion, mellowing and sweetening them while maintaining their crunch.) Halve tomatoes. Chop parsley. Set both aside.
When lentils are cooked and drained, add both mustards and olive oil to the pickled onions, screw on lid, and shake well to combine. Toss half the dressing with the warm lentils, and if you have the time, let sit 15-20 minutes to drink up the dressing. If not, full speed ahead and no worries. Spoon lentils onto a platter, top with the halved cherry tomatoes and chopped parsley, and top with remaining dressing, to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature.