Friday, July 31, 2015

Summer sunsets, summer soups

Sunset over San Juan Island
We are having an unusually dry summer here in the Pacific Northwest.  I’ve been spending most of my time up on Lopez Island where it is cooler than in the more urban areas of the Pacific Northwest.  Virtually every day since the beginning of May has been warm and sunny.  My neighbor, who has been coming to Lopez since the 1950’s tells me it is the driest summer ever.  Friends and family in Seattle and Portland tell me it is too hot to enjoy!   I have a broader tolerance for temperature extremes than many people so I don’t feel it is too hot.  I just drink more water.  And a glass of cool rosé too!  That’s in the evening at the attitude adjustment hour….

Yesterday the temperature on Lopez was fifteen degrees above the long-term average.  In truth I love most things about the hot weather.  Just like when I’m in Brazil, I get up and dress in shorts and flip-flops.  I don’t need a coat to go for a walk.  I just trot happily outside and enjoy the warmth and the sun.  In the Pacific Northwest, an added bonus of sunny weather is the golden sunsets.  I have seen so many beautiful sunsets in the last three months I feel spoiled.  Walking down to the beach in the evening and watching the sun dip below the horizon is a peaceful experience.  Recently I visited friends on San Juan Island.  We went to a state park on the western shore and, with other families, watched the sunset turn the world into an orange glow.  Some of the families were camping at the park and the kids watched the late sunset dressed in their pajamas.  What a wonderful gift to give your children – sunset over the water.  One evening on Lopez, my friend Karen built a graceful driftwood arch while the rest of us sat on driftwood logs enjoying her skill and watching the sun dip below the horizon.

Driftwood Arch at Sunset
 This glorious weather makes it easy to stay in shape too – I’ve been outside every day, biking, hiking, boating, walking, weeding – my garden and my daughter’s garden too – weeds seem to love the warm temperatures.  But fortunately, so do flowers and vegetables.  I described my vegetable garden as a jungle recently – it is a jungle!  The runner beans have gone nuts and the tomato plants are huge and laden with ripening fruit.  But we’ve had no rain to speak of and we’ve had to water the vegetables to keep them alive.  This is the flip side and the unsettling side of having continuously hot weather.  It is so very dry.  Any places - wild or cultivated - that haven’t been watered are looking pretty bleak – lawns and fields everywhere are yellow – by mid July the landscape looked like it might be late August or early September.  I read that the kernels in the Eastern Washington dry land wheat crops are not developing properly – it has been too dry.  Forest fires began breaking out in mid-June and the governor of the state of Washington declared a statewide drought emergency in the middle of May.  I recently visited my daughter Sasha and her fiancé Dustin at their new home in Pullman, Washington.  It was even hotter and drier there than in Seattle - this is very worrying for our state's agriculture.  In Pullman, we had to get up early just to go for a bike ride since the midday temperatures were over 90 degrees.  We plan to do an organized 100-kilometer ride in Pullman in mid-August!  We are training and expecting high heat.
Grazing on dry grass

Last week for the first time in three months, I woke up to the sound of rain. I was happy to hear its friendly sound, tap tapping on the metal roof of my cabin.  The forests, farmlands and rivers need the rain. The lack of rainfall is so different than the normal wetness of this region.  It is hard not to believe that the lack of snow pack and the warm temperatures are harbingers of climate change.  I hope that this summer’s drought will not be our region’s new norm.  I wonder how the native forests, fields and animals will adapt to what seems to be a significantly drier and warmer climate.  Of course we don’t know what the future will bring but for sure there is change in the air.  I try not to worry but I wonder if our ecosystems will be resilient enough to respond positively. 

In the meantime I’ve been eating cold summer soups and salads.  There is nothing that says summer to me as much as a cold soup.  I have several favorites in addition to traditional red gazpacho.  One of the best is a recipe that my friend Betty Lou gave me many years ago when I had too many ripe zucchini in my garden.  It is of course, cold zucchini soup – I’ve made it so many times I don’t even look at the recipe any more.  Its creaminess comes from blending not from cream so it is very healthy too.

Zucchini ready for the sauté pan
Proportions are easy and depend entirely on the number of people you are feeding.  I try to keep the onions and zucchini in roughly the same volumes.  I use both green and yellow zucchinis – whatever I have on hand and I’ve even used over-sized patty pans when they’ve grown too big for grilling.  Garlic is of course to taste as is basil and balsamic vinegar.  The basil has to be fresh but it can be any kind – Genovese, lemon, whatever you have grown or purchased at the farmers market!  Use a lot and don’t cook it – the basil's freshness is part of the delicious taste.  Just add the basil when you are blending the veggies with the broth - you can use either a food processor or a blender.  Depending on the audience, I’ve made it vegetarian with vegetable broth or for omnivores with chicken broth.  Either way it works.  I made it recently for a dinner party in my neighborhood.  The zucchini came from one of my neighbor’s gardens.  Here’s the recipe in a poem I wrote that day – an ode to the joy of summer soup!!  Make sure you use a good olive oil too.  It makes a difference.

Cold Soup

Sitting on the edge of the wood stove
Late July heat outside
The cool of the forest inside
I plan to make zucchini soup
With fresh lemon basil and
Yellow onions from the farm.

I need to chop the vegetables
And fry them slowly in olive oil
I’ll watch them wilt and meld together
Maybe I’ll add a little garlic
From Jeff’s garden
And mash the mess together.

Cold soup is my summer tradition
Cucumber or zucchini?
Almond with bread and green grapes;
Sometimes a green gazpacho;
Sometimes red with peppers and cilantro
All are delicious to me.

When winter comes, the cold soups
Go into hibernation
And I braise cheap cuts of meat.
Or cook beans with carrots, celery and onions.
But I can’t wait until summertime - then
I bring cold soup out again.

I hope you make this soup.  I think you will like it.  Don't forget to add a few tablespoons of balsamic vinegar at the end.  That is the secret ingredient!  Soup makes any meal seem a little more of an event.  There is something about serving everyone from the big bowl with a silver or a plastic ladle.  It doesn’t matter which.  Even if you are serving the soup into plastic cups that your family and friends can wander around with, just the presence of soup as the first course will give everyone a feeling of contentment.  Cold soup is the perfect starter for a summer supper.  It gives a meal an elegant tranquility – effortless and gracious!  Ha!  We wish life was always that way. 

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