I plumb forgot how to cook last week.
Maybe it started the week prior. More likely, end of May. But by last week, I had, no question, a full-blown case of cooking amnesia.
Does this happen to you??
It doesn't to me, not very often, anyway. I get all sorts of other amnesias, mind. I forget how to sleep, frequently. I forget how to get from point A to B, all the time. I forget whether "plumb forgot" does or doesn't have a "b". (Does. See: plumb-bob. See: not "you're such a fruit for forgetting", but "wholly completely forgot".) But cooking? Nah, I've got that down.
In case you've not met her yet, a little glimpse of my pal, Hubris:
Me, standing at the fridge, forlorn, five, six, twelve times a day, wondering: what's celery, and why do I own some? Who bought this food, and what are they going to do about it? Can cucumbers be anything but cold bland tedious slices? No. No I don't think so. Cold bland tedious is, upon considerable reflection, the alpha and omega of cucumberdom. Why yogurt?
Me, pulling open the pantry door, thinking: All these jars. Nothing to eat.
Me, grabbing hard-boiled eggs for egg salad, and lining up three bowls (unpeeled, peeled, peels). Then returning them, an hour later, unfilled, unpeeled, untouched. Egg salad seeming, suddenly, to technically trump advanced rocket science.
Me, making kale smoothie #42, because a) so good, b) no cooking, and c) sooooo good.
Me, realizing I might need a plan, slightly more formal that Plan 'Seat of Pants'. A meal plan! Yes! Obviously! Ten minutes of forethought! Problem solved! I got as far as pulling cookbooks. Some, I even opened. They made no sense.
Me, pulling pots from the low pot cupboard, with no intent save interrogation: Who are you and what are you doing here and I understand you once did this neat trick called "dinner"? Do it again! Encore! Encore!
Me, serving popcorn, eggs, pizza, chips and dip, bread and cheese, my greatest quick hits, all in one week. Then: Repeat.
It was so weird. And pretty unpleasant. I'd forgotten how cold and bland life can be when you temporarily misplace basic kitchen skills.
I think, thankfully, they've scored a return flight.
As it turns out, they weren't so much lost as edged out, in favor of other things.
Things like waking at six and story at eleven and back at it at six, seven short hours later. Day after day. Week after week. Things like finishing school and beginning break and all that out-of-routine wonkiness. Like daily (hourly) blueberry updates. Golden raspberry reports. Weeding. Watering. Laundry. It's on the verge of done! It's been on the verge for three weeks! This week is the week it shall cross the finish line! Chariots of Fire theme song: commence!
Things like Father's Day cards and magnet experiments and strawberry picking, as we do in June. Then oblitering four precious pounds in an ill-fated, awesome jam effort. (Picture foam. Picture pot boiling over. Picture repeating steps one and two. Twice. Picture stubbornly unset slurry. Picture every jam I've ever made. Strawberry sauce it is. Again. And serious, serious clean up effort.)
Things like trips to the nursery for tomato cages that yielded also, somehow, a spiky new flower. (Me.) A concord grape. (Them.) Three more raspberry bushes. (Me and them.) We'll leave off the cauliflower and corn and acorn squash, for now. And how all of the above doesn't plant itself.
Things like teaching them to make their own pancakes. An excellent plan with excellent results which took, nonetheless, half the day to do right. There's little oomph left for dinner at six when the last of the flour was wiped up at two.
Things like swimming, swimming and more swimming. And just for good measure, more swimming besides. Indeed, the entire kitchen off-kilter phenomenon may boil down to swim lessons at opposite ends of each day. One trip to the pool every day's an adventure. Two is borderline bonkers. Probably, my brain's just water-logged.
But between the sloshing and washing and everything, I hazily remembered this: that hunger is a vast and varied thing, fed as much by experience as any soup. That appetites come in all shapes and stripes, and hanker after motion as much as meals. That days which brim with the good and the real might allow for no more than quick scraps at day's end. That scrappy days may indeed be the very best benchmark of a day well done. That not all feasts involve knife and fork. That maybe, just maybe, most don't.
I also remembered, belatedly, that summer cooking isn't about cooking. Summer is gathering, washing, maybe slicing, possibly dressing, definitely gobbling. Summer is eating, stripped down, straight up. Bare bones bounty. Uncomplicated. But actual cooking? Ingredients and directions? Measuring cups and multiple steps? Why bother? The food, once found, all but fixes itself.
I'd almost forgotten the finding bit.
I went to the farmer's market, last weekend, for the almost*-first time, this year. I rarely leave it so late. I didn't realize how much I'd missed it. *(The actual first time, when we came back with only some pre-pubescent kale and sixteen garden plants, didn't, for obvious reasons, really count.)
I'd forgotten what a spur and goad and cheap mindless solution a good market run can be. How simple eating-cum-cooking becomes when someone else decides what's on tap. How obvious is the answer to "what's for dinner?" when Mother Nature's done all the menu planning. Looks like chard, steamed and buttered. Looks like peas, straight from the pod. Looks like strawberries, in spades, while they last.
They're just about done here, the strawberries. We've done our best to eat our fill. Rolled up in crèpes. Piled upon waffles. Dipped in whipped cream. Sliced into salads. Hand over fist. Sliced, especially, recently, raucously, into this whizz-bang salad.
It is little more than a mess of strawberries, thickly sliced, gently slicked with balsamic. A pinch of salt, two pinches sugar, and ten minutes' time to mingle and macerate.
Half an hour won't hurt, if weeds need pulling, or words need spelling, or eyes need closing. But ten minutes are fine. Ten minutes are grand. Ten minutes yield depth and syrup and spunk.
To this heap of crimson-stained, juiced-up berries, you tear over half a knob of that glory, buffalo mozzarella. (I've sung mozzarella di buffala's praises before, and will certainly do so, again. It's mild sweet and plump give is everything, here.) Fresh lemon basil from the yard, fresh lemon thyme on a lark, and black pepper, freshly ground. Done. The hardest part is the slicing; the simplest, the devouring.
Vivid sweet, from the flurry of berries, rimmed with balsamic's playful tart, it's a bowl about tossing smartly together for something whose sum way outnumbers its parts. The herbs bring a fresh, verdant fist-pump to punctuate the berries, and swing for team savory, and to play up the mozzarella's milky mild. It is soothing and thrilling and deeply comforting and unabashedly intense and endlessly good. Cooking, it isn't. But a feast, it absolutely is.
A feast, very loosely formulated. Substitute nectarines for strawberries, or tart intense apricots, or garnet cherries. Or mix and match. I have. Ace, all. The only rule is to use what sings. Leave off the lemon thyme if you have none; double up, if you like. I loved lemon basil, and have some small starts. Genovese would be fine. Purple, stunning. I've mean to try tarragon. I've added arugula leaves, and adored them. I always intend to include olive oil; always don't; never miss it. Up the mozzarella if your morning swim was particularly vigorous. Or your dark load, menacing. Or, like me, you just love the stuff. This is eating as improvisation. Summer food. Uncomplicated.
Strawberry Basil Caprese
I do feel strongly about the buffalo mozzarella, here; Costco is, as always, my source. For more on mozzarella di buffala see here. Burrata would be a fine alternate. On all other matters: improvise. I found this absolutely perfect as is. I imagine it would be absolutely perfect, eleven other ways. Hello, Summer.
3 cups red, ripe local strawberries
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
3 teaspoons good balsamic vinegar
1/2 knob mozzarella di buffala (2 oz.)
10-15 leaves fresh basil (lemon basil is particularly lovely)
2" sprig fresh lemon thyme (optional)
coarse salt + freshly ground pepper
Wash, stem, and thickly slice strawberries. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon sugar and 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar, and toss gently to combine. Set aside 10 minutes to macerate.
Tumble strawberries and their glorious juices onto a rimmed plate. Shred mozzarella into rags, and scatter over. Strip thyme leaves (if using), and scatter over all. Tear basil roughly, and do the same. Drizzle with another teaspoon of balsamic, sprinkle with a pinch of salt and several grinds of fresh pepper, and carve out five minutes of quote-unquote quiet.