Dateline: Last Tuesday, a.k.a. Last Day of Break, a.k.a. The Last Day of Freedom FOREVER
We kicked it off right with early morning dental cleanings for four, because I am fun like that. This meant alarms set for 6:30. No one thanked me.
By the time we left with our shiny white smiles, the weather was that special brew of thick-sticky-swelter that is standard-issue Ohio summer. It felt, in Ann Patchett's words, like "air heavy enough to be bitten off and chewed." Granted, she was describing the Brazilian Amazon. I was wading through Central Ohio. Still. Ick.
Fortunately, we had final swim lessons just after lunch. Unfortunately, I rushed out without my suit. Then proceeded to melt into the lounge chairs so completely, I took the top off my toe, when I went to stand. Heat and I are only sort of on speaking terms.
Homework, assigned back in early June, was still, somehow, miraculously not done. Johnny Tremain was suddenly our sixth family member. Whiggs and Tories were ardently debated. Questions begged answers. Crisis loomed. And not just the Revolution.
The pantry I meant to excavate before school looked more apocalypse than Container Store. Actually, every corner, closet and drawer fit that description. I have my next years' work cut out for me. But in the short term, the pantry was a problem, as three lunches needed packing by morning. I located exactly one lunch box. Two children would apparently be going hungry.
One child felt certain the start of school signalled tragedy, or at least, the end of the world. The other just grumped. Passionately. I'd finished my book the night before, and so was in that awful limbo called "between-books". I could not get through my latest piano music without completely butchering the thing, which felt like an insult to Ms. Perri. And my ears. And those of my family. There were plates of golden zucchini, for dinner. The only thing worse than school, per some. And after? That post-dinner Cutthroat Kitchen viewing, which we'd anticipated all the day long, had vanished. As happens to free online stuff. But still, geez. And all day, over and over, I kept catching myself thinking, This. This is pretty much perfect.
Because in the end there were no cavities. And a dear friend watched my splashing kids so I could zip home, suit up, jump in, and appreciate the heat the only way I know how: under water. And the much-anticipated end-of-the-year pool treats were purchased. And inhaled. Meaning the vending machine actually worked. The vending machine never works. That day it did.
And one of the three was ecstatic about school, had been counting down days, had the hardly-waits. And that enthusiasm was enough to carry the day and counteract the detractors (both of whom were, of course, fine in the event). And we finally received our copy of The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, fresh and ready for reading after the first day of school. And I was in that delicious limbo known as between-books, and eventually settled on State of Wonder. And although I'm only a eighth of an inch in, it's an excellent eighth. And I'm out of limbo.
And I finally played Für Elise through without the hugest, most heinous errors, having isolated the problematic middle. And practiced it alone. Some twenty times. And while practice didn't make anything resembling perfect, or even perfect's second cousin, thrice removed, it noodged the needle, and in the right direction. And some days, an inch is everything.
And despite the early start and too many to-do's, the afternoon was one long wonderful winding-down, hanging with friends, noshing on snacks, catching up after too long away. The sort of thing you expect of all summer. The sort that somehow never happens. It did, that day. I'm still riding that high.
And the loaded Dinner Question was discussed, mostly reasonably, and even resolved. Thickly sliced tomato, to accompany the dreaded zucchini. Choose your own veg. Chaos averted. The Whigs and Tories weren't quite as lucky. But at least we figured out who wore what.
And we found another Cutthroat Kitchen channel, and so reversed that tragedy. And everyone was in bed by 10:30, which was not bad at all, under the circumstances. And we'd had one full day's practice rising early, so we had a slim shot at pulling off a repeat. And even though I was dog-tired by bedtime, and ready to sleep still standing up, within minutes, I could not keep myself from picking up a pile and tidying a shelf and hauling a heap of who-knows-what to the basement. Whereupon I found the two missing lunch boxes. All before midnight. The children wouldn't even starve.
And I'm not sure when I began understanding perfect as sliced tomato détentes and post-bedtime basement rummage sessions, but if my kids are any clue, I suspect it was late-breaking. They still conceive perfect in broad sweeping terms, as days in which the world plays by their rules, heeds their whims, conforms to their every last fancy. It's very sweet, and very unattainable, and has the awkward side effect that one small ding in an otherwise excellent day tends to topple the whole. It's the rotten apple approach to perfect. I know it well.
But at some point, it started to seem to me that perfect is more mica than diamond. Small flecks, buried in the anonymous gray, that catch the light, catch your eye, catch your breath sometimes clean away. Specks embedded in the ordinary that surprise you, maybe stun you a little. That perfect is this fractured, fleeting thing, imprecise. Always messy. And whenever I search the crowd of our days for its big, tidy, showy, absolute self, I miss perfect entirely. Mistaken identity. Classic case.
Tuesday was the rare day that I caught the odd glint, real time. Despite the dirty sink and the muggy. Around the back-to-school trauma and drama. Beneath the disappointments and tiny tragedies every day invariably holds. It's possible I'm finally acquiring a thin vein of wisdom, aging's singular consolation to arthritis and root canals and elevenses and a lengthening list I've only begun to plumb. The understanding that against all that awful, these are pretty good problems to have. The problems of living. So much better than the alternative. Also possible: the impending prospect of uninterrupted hours to work and clean proved so heady, no number of pins could burst my happy. Whatevs. Tuesday sparkled.
Anyway, this thing I want to tell you about today is, however you measure, the opposite of precision, of perfect. I began making variations on this theme last summer, when this piece about Portland's Jenn Louis ran. Much like that last salad, the "this" is actually two parts, one zip, one substance. The zip is a sort-of pesto, sort-of sauce, a bit of both, not really either. Like pesto, the backbone is fresh herbs and nuts, but here mint and fennel play with the basil, and sweet pistachios stand in for pine nuts. There is no cheese, and it's best hand-chopped, more like salsa verde, rustic, chunky. Through it all, there's a rip-roaring chorus of lemon, both the peel, which gets minced alongside the rest, and sharp juice which, with olive oil, binds the whole.
It looks a mess, subdued mottled-green, even moments after making. That it veers toward drab by the next day doesn't help things. No matter. It's a heady mess, sweet, cool, fragrant, bright, cheeky with citrus, rubbled with nuts, all hyped up on fresh green's swagger. I've drizzled it over plums and feta, a happy fate for all involved. It's intriguing on wide drippy slices of tomato, heirloom-fancy or ordinary beefsteak. Fish is a whole separate ballgame, and a very, very good one. I keep meaning to try it on grilled zucchini, or eggplant, or maybe mushrooms?
But mostly, especially, I favor ripe peaches, stippled with weepy sweet mozzarella, generously drizzled with the above. There is something so right about pistachios and peaches, and mint and peaches, and basil and peaches, and definitely mozzarella and peaches, and altogether, well. A good lunch. On this day, I had some sharp tender local arugula, which I'd repeat in a heartbeat. I soon ran out, and repeated it anyway, just peaches plus cheese plus pistachio gunge. Between the fresh cheese and high summer peaches, it's a chin-drippy, slurp-worthy, deeply messy meal. I highly recommend it. All of it.
Pistachio Verde (Pistachio Lemon Herb Sauce)
adapted from Jenn Louis
I have made this in the food processor, and while it is still very good (and certainly less messy), I do prefer the toothsome bits that hand-chopping yields. That said, feel free to process if you wish, pulsing quickly, and erring on the side of chunky vs. slurry. Also, I like varied bits of lemon zest, and so peel strips, then chop. If you prefer wisps, zest your lemon on the microplane. Either way, be sure to capture only the outermost yellow layer.
1 1/2 cups fresh herbs (I use equal parts fennel fronds, mint and basil)
1-2 large, plump lemons (ideally organic)
1 1/2 cups roasted, salted pistachios
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
Wash lemons, then with a sharp peeler, remove just the yellow layer of peel in wide strips. Set aside. Juice both lemons, and set juice aside.
Wash and dry herbs, and pluck from their stems. Place herbs, pistachios and lemon peel strips on a large cutting board, and with a sharp chef's knife, hand chop to a chunky paste. I do this as follows: place knife tip on board; move blade purposefully across the pile, left to right; gather stray bits back together with blade into a heap; repeat. Chop until as fine or chunky as you like; I prefer something between mince and dice. Scrape herb-nut-zest mixture into a wide bowl, then add olive oil, salt, and half the lemon juice. Stir and taste, ideally with a piece of peach, and adjust lemon juice/everything to taste.
Peach, Pistachio Verde, + Buffalo Mozzarella Salad
Yield: one meal-sized salad; scale to suit
I dollop the pistachio verde on with a heavy hand, and so find no other dressing necessary. If your peaches are dry, or your salad seems inadequately dressed, a gloss of olive oil should right the wrong. I adore Costco's mozzarella di bufala, though good fresh cow's milk mozzarella, ricotta salata or feta would all be lovely, here.
1/2 knob mozzarella di bufala
two handfuls arugula (optional)
3 Tbs. pistachio herb sauce (+ more to taste)
Wash and slice two peaches. On a large plate, place arugula, if using. Add sliced peaches, then tear mozzarella into shreds, and add, also. Spoon pistachio herb sauce over all. Eat. Repeat.