The last blast of summer

Last week as I was enjoying a juicy, heirloom tomato from my terrace garden, I started thinking about what I was going to miss most once summer was over.  Besides flavorful sweet, high acid tomatoes, definitely fresh corn from the local farms.  In July and August, I indulge in a whole range of dishes made with tomatoes and corn:  Panzanella (Tuscan tomato bread salad), corn risotto, gazpacho, corn and zucchini salad, ratatouille, to name but a few.  (Recipes from many of these dishes are on this site, by the way!)  The thought of enduring ten months of store-bought greenhouse tomatoes and frozen corn is depressing even for non-cooks.  At the end of the day, though, it’s all about seasonal changes and the very reason why we gorge on summer’s bounty when we can. 

Summer’s minimalism

Years ago, in the ‘60s, I knew a food expert, Nika Hazelton, who was famous for her annual summertime feast.  She would boil up enormous pots of sweet corn as soon as it appeared at her local green market. She served it “solo” with Champagne.  Maybe with some sweet butter and sea salt but that was it. The anticipation among her friends of being on her guest list was legendary.  Alas, my late husband and I never made the cut. But it is easy to appreciate the appeal of Nika’s sparse menu:  the contrast of corn’s simplicity with its crunch and sugar-sweet richness with Champagne’s earthy sophistication. Just think of it: Butter drippling down your chin eating the piping hot corn with your fingers while sipping a flute of ice-cold Dom Ruinart.  Shades of the famous, sex-drenched eating scene from the movie Tom Jones.  Right?

The warmth and light of summertime

With summer rapidly fading, I asked a few friends and new acquaintances what they’d miss most.  Almost everyone mentioned something which involved being outdoors.  Living in a part of the country where we experience four seasons, many of us will miss the warmth and light of summer months. Whatever recreation you like best—going to the beach, hitting the golf course, taking in the US Open tennis championship, long-distance cycling or merely strolling down the avenue checking out the summer sales—they are all at their best in summer months.  

More than one person mentioned being able to eat outdoors. A shoe clerk from Diane B thoughtfully described it: “As a New Yorker, dinning at an outdoor café in the middle of summer is one of my favorite treats.”  I asked if the car fumes or street noise were a deterrent. “Not at all,” he replied a bit surprised as if, as a fellow New Yorker, I should know better.” All that hustle and bustle is part of a city’s energy.  Even when my boyfriend and I travel abroad on vacation in the summertime, we seek out restaurants with terraces. Seeing the world go by and experiencing the buzz of that particular city is all part of a summer experience, no matter where you are.” 

Mia, one of my knitting instructors at String, agreed wholeheartedly.  “One of the best parts of summer is that it doesn’t get dark until 9:00 PM. There is also something unique about being outdoors especially at dusk when the light is starting to change and the stars come out.  It really is a magical time of day.”

Summer’s sweet spots

Her co-worker, Clare, added “There is also a whole range of free and deeply discounted things to do in the City in the summertime.” She ticked off Shakespeare in the Park, Restaurant Week, Bryant Park Movie Nights, Broadway’s 2 for 1 ticket, and finally, the Metropolitan Opera’s Summer HD Festival.

Last Saturday, for example, 3000 seats were set up to see Aida, Verdi’s ancient Egyptian epic. I met two girlfriends at 6:30 PM and sipped Cava and ate figs and prosciutto before the performance. At 8:00 PM on the dot, the opera was projected on a huge, outdoor screen as billowing clouds sluggishly moved through the evening’s darkening blue sky. The audience was enchanted as superstar soprano Anna Netrebko went toe to toe (or rather high C to high C) with the equally dazzling mezzosoprano, Anita Rachvelishvili, as her royal rival. No doubt, other cities have their own series of free summer concerts. However, sitting under the stars with the Met Opera House with its stunning Chagall paintings as a backdrop, is without comparison. My friend, a passionate opera lover who had invited me, described the evening as being as close to an “out of body experience” as one can get.

Alex, another new acquaintance and elementary school teacher, told me she loves summer as it gives her more time to spend with her husband.  “We’re both teachers.  I currently work in a summer camp taking care of very young children. Unlike during the school year when I have lesson plans to prepare at night, when I get home now, my job is done.”

The City is mine, all mine!

While most people enjoy traveling in the summer to relax and recoup on their family vacations, I tend to stay home. Summer “staycations” in Manhattan are great as no one is here.  As Bonnie Leblang, food blogger and publicist, describes it: “You feel as if you own the City. In the summer, everyone is away at the Hamptons, Connecticut or on a vacation outside of Manhattan.  The streets are literally empty.” 

Last Sunday coming back from the Leonard Cohen exhibit at the Jewish Museum, I observed an eerily abandoned Madison Avenue.  Not a car, bus or yellow cab in sight for as far as the eye could see. It would have made a perfect bowling ally for the Jolly Green Giant, I thought to myself.

Take it all off

Deborah Mintcheff, a cookbook editor pal, will miss her minimal summer attire.  “A pair of shorts, a casual T-shirt and flip flops, that’s all you need.  While I do love the seasonal changes, I don’t love having to wear all those layers when it gets cold.”   I couldn’t agree more.  For me, summertime means not having to put on pantyhose, one of modern fashion’s most restrictive pieces of clothing for women. 

Daylight is particularly special this time of the year, too.  My trainer, Jennifer Spina, rides her bike across town to my eastside gym. “For me daylight is important.  I love riding my bike during the summer months as the sun is already up when I head out around 5:30  AM.”  Now that the summer solstice has passed back in late June, the days are getting shorter which makes us cherish even more the fading moments of summer’s daylight.

Eating summer’s bounty

It’s been scientifically proven that spending time in nature to recharge your batteries at this time of year is good for your happiness and well-being.  Gardening, in particular, is a popular outdoor activity in the summer.  Growing fruits and vegetables is a rewarding experience knowing that you are producing something both heathy and delicious.  Jan Hazard, former food editor of House & Gardens loves to grow flowers in her garden, especially edible ones.  “What will I miss most? Being able to put nasturtium flowers in my salad which for me is the very essence of summer.”

Taking cover from the sun

Many friends talked about missing summer’s heat.  “There is something unique and almost healing about the warmth of sunshine on your face, “a friend exclaimed poetically.  While some people crave the summer sun, especially beach lovers, some people hide from it, especially if you’ve ever had an issue with melanoma. 

My fellow Italian classmate, Joan Ross, says she will miss not being able to wear her summer hats.  “You know I have a closet full of hats which I wear for protection from the sun.  I recently bought this glamourous, broad-brimmed straw hat with a corn flower blue ribbon when I was in Nantucket.  Soon I’ll have to put it in the closet for the season.”

Given I live in the East, I was curious to learn what those people in year-round warmer climates will miss most from summer.  Food scientist, Diane McComber, who lives in Tahoe, had this to say on the topic. “This part of Nevada is very cool as we are in the High Sierras. Tahoe is a huge, clear lake with 70 feet visibility in the depths. We will miss seeing boats dashing across the deep blue waters in the shadow of snow-capped mountains.”

Tomatoes, tomatoes and more tomatoes

Sue Huffman, one of Food Network’s founders currently lives in California. As she explains it, "Living in America’s Farm-to-Fork city (Sacramento), I shall miss juicy fresh-picked tomatoes from the farmers’ market. I like them best on thick-sliced bread with mayo, a slice of sweet onion and coarse sea salt.  A glass of Viognier never hurts too.” I naively thought California grew tomatoes year-round.  Turns out they have seasons for growing like we do in the East.  According to Sue, “The best home-grown ones are July and August.  Maybe going into September.” 

The serious side of summer

Summer is not all about sun, surf and sand.  I asked Barbara Hanley, owner of Shy Brothers’ Farm—an award-winning cheese producer in Westport, Massachusetts—what she will miss most.  As Barbara was fighting breast cancer earlier this year, she spent much of her summer at Mass General.  Without skipping a beat, she replied with a grateful tone in her voice,” My oncology team, especially Jyl, the nurse who administered my chemotherapy.  She was fabulous.” Indeed so, as Barbara is now cancer free.

Mike and his lobbies

Barbara hosted me last week at her home in Westport Point, a quaint, historic fishing town on a river which feeds into the Atlantic Ocean.  Mike, the taciturn local fisherman who specializes in lobsters, told us what he was NOT going to miss: the tourists’ silly questions. Mike described how out-of-towners would ask him “Did you just catch these lobsters?” as he was pulling them from his boat to put into the "cars" that float off the side of his vessel. So, while Mike does offer a polite answer to strangers, he shared with what he really sarcastically thinks when he’s asked this question: “Yeah, I loaded the lobbies (local for lobsters!) in my boat, took them for a ride around the bay, and am just bringing them back to the dock.'”  Mike looked at us shaking his head with a look of warn resignation.

The dash to the finish line

As we careen toward the end of summer, people start frantically trying to enjoy as many warm weather pleasures as they can.  Once we arrive at Labor Day, we reluctantly resign ourselves to what lays ahead for us: the hustle bustle of getting the kids back into a school routine, returning to work, and then, dashing madly to the year-end holidays.  It’s enough to make a person hyperventilate. 

Yesterday, I decided to make a last blast of summer statement. I was a vision of white from head to toe: white slacks, white sleeveless blouse, white cotton sweater and new white backless shoes with beige tassels.  While the look was rather reminiscent of a ‘60s nurse, I luxuriated in wearing the color. Why? For the simple reason that I knew after Labor Day, all that dazzling white clothing would have to be packed away.  Then, in June next year, it all comes out again as we plunge back into summer’s vibrant calliope of hedonistic outdoor pleasures.

In the meantime, enjoy the remaining summer heirloom tomatoes, bi-colored sweet corn, and if you can find them, nasturtiums for your salad.  They’ll be gone before you know it.