Friday, September 3, 2010

Last swim

When it’s the last swim of the summer, you’d better make it count. Especially if you’re anchored off Orient Point, doing a clumsy but earnest crawl in deep, cool water around the hull of a sailboat.

The moment will replay in my mind throughout the winter, when I need to remember that perfect emulsion of air, sunlight, and sea spray…the boat straining its anchor,
the swells slapping at my face, the faraway shoreline bobbing in and out of view. Later, my skin prickling with salt as it dried in the sun.

I did some magical thinking for a moment, channeling Neddy Merrill: if I keep moving forward through water, might summer stay? Can I trick time if I keep gliding from house to house, drinks rattling in hand?

Or, as my cousin Copeland mused, perhaps the key to pinning down summer is to eat a sun-ripened tomato sandwich every single day. She’s onto something there–tomatoes might well be the ticket to estival immortality. Slicing through the waves quickly becomes exhausting, but sawing off another slab of heavy-with-juice heirlooms…well, who can tire of that?
As summer wanes, tomatoes are nature's halfway houses, here to ease us across that span between corn and acorn squash. And their timing is just right: as it gets cold enough for the first soups to hit the table, the final tomatoes, blemished though they may be, linger a while to brighten up pistous and minestrones. And better yet, to head into mason jars for home-canned tomato sauce. Eugenia Bone's Well-Preserved is kind of my bible right now, and I'm fortunate enough to have the outstanding Marble Valley Farm nearby, which offers up flats "seconds" at 50 cents a pound.
For now, tomatoes are still abundant and bodacious. We have a few perched in our fruit bowl at all times, canoodling with the nectarines and peaches. On a steamy day, a few hours is all it takes for them to go from firm to mush, so acting quickly is of the utmost importance. Partially for this reason, I've been on a panzanella kick. Panzanella, or bread salad, also answers the question of what to do with yesterday's fossilized baguette. The first time I threw one together, at the house we rented on Shelter Island, we had been playing on the beach all day and had guests, mojitos, and lovely grass-fed ribeyes awaiting the grill–but nothing else prepared by seven o'clock. Quickly pulling together bits and bobs from around the kitchen and sending the girls out to pluck herbs from the garden, I came up with something akin to the recipe below. My husband Ben eyed me skeptically as I hacked the rind off a forlorn hunk of bread. 

"You're feeding us stale bread for dinner?"

"Not exactly," I explained. "Because the bread soaks up all the good stuff and becomes…not stale." 

"Ah, so we're having a soggy bread salad." 

He quickly ate his words and happily admitted it. The beauty of this recipe is not only in its thrift but its versatility–the one below is but a single possibility in a multitude. And, the "soggy" bread cubes are the big, happy surprise, as they drink up every drop of those sunny tomatoes and make it all last a little bit longer.
Bread Salad (Panzanella)
feeds 4 as a side
  • 2 1/2 cups stale baguette or country-style bread, crusts removed, cut into 1-inch cubes (just shy of a baguette)
  • 2 medium tomatoes or the equivalent–cut into wedges then halve the wedges
  • 1 small bell pepper, cored and diced into cubes
  • 1/3 cup diced, peeled cucumber
  • 1 small onion or shallot, minced finely
  • 1/4 cup crumbled feta
  • a few leaves of basil, torn
  • a few mint leaves, minced
For the vinaigrette: 
  • 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar 
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil 
  • pinch salt
In a medium bowl, put first the bread cubes, then all other ingredients except those for vinaigrette. Whisk together vinaigrette ingredients then drizzle over the salad ingredients, tossing together to combine. For best results, let this sit for a bit while you pull together dinner, then toss one last time before serving.  

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