Summer squash salad with tomatoes and basil

Early summer is a busy time.  Crazy-busy sometimes.  Packed with the last events of the school year, final recitals, performances and graduation celebrations in practically an endless stream—there’s barely a night to spare.  And what about the summer vacation planning that should have been done weeks ago, that can wait no longer?  (We leave THIS Sunday?)  All good things individually, one-at-a-leisurely-pace-time, but en masse, well, let’s just say it’s easy to lose focus on the joy of the moment.  Part of the problem lies in the fact that we’ve scarcely enough time to sit down to a meal, let alone assemble one worth eating.  But we’re still hungry, and for more than pizza, night after night.  These times call for simple, fresh food—and flying by the seat of the pants.  Tis the season to improvise.

Luckily some of the most inspired deliciousness starts this way—even in less harried moments.  But when we’re short of time to shop and fuss, improvising is about surviving using what we have.  It’s about flexibility and cooking toward an undetermined destination.  Recipes are followed roughly, if at all.  Dinner will be what it will be, and what the heck, we’ll figure it out along the way.  There are no mistakes, just new tastes.  Anyone sitting down to dinner this week knows to keep that in mind as they put fork to mouth.

Another bit of advice, to whomever can drive, it never hurts to grab a little carryout to supplement.  All in the name of sanity and getting food on the table.  Next week WILL be better.

What I might improvise this week:

Green beans with kale.  Steam the beans for a few minutes, so they’re halfway cooked—in the microwave if it comes to that.  Then sauté a sliced onion or shallot in olive oil with any mushrooms lingering in the crisper drawer.  Chop half a bunch of kale (or grab a helper to do the job) to toss in the pan with the drained beans, and lightly cook the mix for 5 minutes.  Garnished with grated Parmesan, this will nearly be a meal in itself.

Kale and Lemon Ricotta TartineKale, amazingly, makes a great sandwich.  Slice some artisan bread.  If it’s stale, no worries, a quick toasting will spruce it up.  Chop a bundle of kale leaves and sauté in olive oil with pressed garlic.  Finish with a squeeze of lemon juice and pile on the bread—even better, if you have it, spread a layer of ricotta or goat cheese first.  Garnish with a drizzle of good olive oil and coarse sea salt.

Zucchini shaved thinly (with a vegetable peeler, by jove) is easily tossed with crushed garlic (use a garlic press for speed), olive oil, balsamic vinegar, halved cherry tomatoes and kalamata olives for a quick salad (pictured at the top of the page).  If you have it, cubed fresh feta or mozzarella is a nice addition, with a bit of cilantro for garnish.

Sliced carrot rounds are delicious sautéed in olive oil and simply dressed in the pan, at the last minute, with a few splashes of balsamic vinegar and coarse salt.  Or sauté them with black mustard seeds and cumin seeds, in a bit of olive oil.  Garnish with fresh cilantro.  The same treatment works for the zucchini or beans as well.

Quinoa Salad with Apricots and HerbsGreen salad is gussied up with fresh plums and apricots, a few toasted nuts and a bit of goat cheese. If we want to get fancy we might cook up some quinoa and toss into the mix with a drizzle of oil and vinegar and a handful of chopped cilantro.

Spread ricotta on toasted bread and top it with sliced stone fruit instead of kale, and bit of last week’s mint.

Pasta with Pesto, Potatoes and Green BeansSeems crazy but why not pesto?  It’s oddly forgiving and easily improvised.  Add cheese or not, and vary amounts of any of the ingredients to taste.  There’s no fixed formula.   Whir cilantro leaves and soft stems (2 cups worth) in a food processor with a generous handful of grated Parmesan, a couple tablespoons of walnuts and a clove or two of peeled garlic.   With the motor running, add olive oil through the feed tube until the mixture is smooth and barely pourable.  A squeeze of lemon juice and salt to taste finish things off.  Toss a few spoonfuls with canned beans, minced onion and a few cherry tomatoes.  Sauté green beans or zucchini and stir in pesto just before serving, or toss with cooked pasta or couscous with a few raw veggies.

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