Monday, July 28, 2008

Monsoon Flashback

Yesterday, I had a sudden reminder of what it feels like to live in the midst of monsoon season. The irony is, this happened before yesterday's monsoon-like storms. In the middle of the afternoon, it got very, very dark. Then the trees in the woods behind the cottage began waving wildly. (I was sure at least one would come toppling down.) And then the rain began. It took me a bit too long to realize that the rain wasn't just coming down, but coming in sideways through the windows. I ran around the house, followed in hot pursuit by the cats, attempting to close as many windows as I could before things got too wet. It was a bad storm--many trees and telephone poles down and streets flooded. Even though the storm itself didn't last that long, the thunder and rain remained for much of the afternoon, and now, almost 24 hours later, my telephone line is still crackly.

But my monsoon flashback had come before all that. I've been in India on the edges of monsoon season many times, but I've only lived through one full monsoon season, the summer of 1994 in Delhi. I'd managed to avoid the worst of the June heat by spending 3 weeks with a friend in the mountain village where she was doing her anthropology fieldwork. I got back to Delhi at the end of June, just after the rains had begun. The temperature dropped dramatically--from well over 100 to the 90s--but the humidity remained close to 100%. After a few weeks back in Delhi, I left again, for 10 days or so in July, for a trip to Bombay and Pune.

When I returned, I was horrified by my apartment. When it had been closed up for 3 weeks in June, it had been fine, but closed up for 10 days during the early monsoon was a different story. Everything was dank and damp, and there was mold, not only on the walls but in my shoes. I don't know why the mold in my shoes seemed so awful, but it did, especially because it seemed like it would be months before they could dry out all the way. It felt like an insult, the mold in my shoes. Not that I liked mold on my walls, but at least I didn't have to wear those. (I don't know if Tevas were around then or not, but if they were, I didn't have them and spent much of that summer in a pair of cheap blue flip flops, easily cleanable and mold-free.)

Flash forward to yesterday, almost exactly 14 years later. I was cleaning my kitchen. One wall is all windows, several of which are open all the time. And on the floor, in front of those windows, is a boot tray on which many pairs of shoes sit, and a little shoe rack, where there are more shoes. You can tell where this is going, can't you? I was taking the shoes off the tray so I could wipe it off and shake it outside, and what did I see, on several pairs of sandals and more than one pair of shoes, but mold. Admittedly, it wasn't as bad as in Delhi--it hadn't reached the fully furry and green stage yet. But still. You know it's been a wet summer when your shoes get moldy in New England.

I suppose I should be grateful, though. On that first day back from Bombay, I had one more monsoon-related surprise. I was in the front room of my apartment when I heard a loud crash. I had no idea what it could be, so I went back to the bedroom, and into the bathroom next to the bedroom, and discovered that the enormous mirror on the wall--not just a little picture frame of a mirror but one that took up most of the wall above the sink--had fallen to the floor and broken into a zillion pieces. How could this have happened? For reasons beyond my comprehension, the people who had put the mirror on the wall had GLUED it there. In Delhi, where it's rainy and humid for 3 or 4 months a year. No screws, no nails, nothing solid holding it to the wall but glue. Which, over time, began to unstick itself, until it gave up the ghost entirely.

My ineffectual landlords fluttered about a bit but weren't very helpful. (I did, eventually, get a new mirror, and I stood there watching them put it in until I was positive they were fixing it to the wall with something besides glue.) I was very insistent on living without a servant (unusual in Delhi), but even I gave in and paid the girl who did the sweeping for my landlords to clean up the mirror.

And in some kind of synchronicity, my new friend, Janet Chawla, invited me for dinner as an antidote to the moldy shoes and the shattered mirror. Now, 14 years later, Jan (who still lives in Delhi and does research on traditional birth practices in India and runs an NGO called Matrika) is my frequent email Scrabulous partner. And 14 years later, in this season of climate change and New England monsoons, I'm dealing with moldy shoes once more and grateful, at least, that the potential bad luck of another broken mirror has not yet befallen me.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Summer Vegetable Love, or, Pasta with Corn, Zucchini and Tomatoes

At some point later in the summer, about a month or so from now, I'll be cursing summer vegetables. Not because I'll be sick of them, really, but because I'll be inundated with them. My kitchen and dining room tables will be covered with bowls of tomatoes and stalks of basil in jars of water. My stove will be perpetually splattered with red. I will realize, once again, that my supply of quart containers has dwindled and needs replenishment. I will pat myself on the back, once again, for having bought a second freezer for my basement a couple of years ago. I will, for a few weeks from late August into the later part of September, be a slave to my garden produce, and thus I will complain. (Unless, of course, my garden doesn't produce as planned, and then I will complain about that.)

For now, though, there's not too much of anything. For one thing, the tomatoes on my plants all remain resolutely green, so the only tomatoes are what's at the farmer's market. For another, I was very restrained and only planted 3 zephyr squash plants, in the hopes of avoiding a glut of squash. And it's true that I can't drive past my favorite farm stand without stopping, so I often have more corn than I know what to do with on any given day, but that doesn't feel particularly oppressive, just bountiful. (One reason I love summer food (and living by myself) is that, if I want to, I can eat a couple of pieces of corn on the cob while standing around in my kitchen, and call it dinner. Yum.)

Tonight, I made one of my summer stand byes, taken from a 2004 Mark Bittman "Minimalist" column in the NY Times. What I love about it, besides that it's delicious, is that it requires bits of things rather than volumes of things. I used 3 ears of corn (of course from my favorite farm stand), 3 farmer's market tomatoes, 1 zephyr squash from my community garden, one onion of unknown origins, 1 clove of farmer's market garlic (though mine is just about ready to be picked) and a handful of basil from my garden at home--it felt like a very egalitarian dinner. It's not the prettiest dish (though the tomatoes give everything a faint pink tinge) nor the most elegant, but on a humid July evening, it's the perfect thing to eat. And even better, there are lots of leftovers, so I can eat it again tomorrow, and I won't even have to get the stove all dirty again.

Adapted from The New York Times

Time: 30 minutes

Salt and pepper

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or 2 tablespoons oil and 1 tablespoon butter

1 cup corn kernels (from 2 or 3 ears)

1 cup diced zucchini or summer squash (from 2 or 3 small vegetables)

1 medium onion or 3 or 4 shallots, diced

1/4 teaspoon minced garlic, optional

1 or 2 sprigs tarragon (I used basil instead)

4 plum or 2 large tomatoes, diced

1 pound cut pasta, like penne. (I used something fancy and twirly.)

1. Set a large pot of water to boil and salt it. Put 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and add corn. Cook, stirring occasionally, until corn begins to brown. Add zucchini and some salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until zucchini begins to brown.

2. Add onion or shallots and garlic if you are using it. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion softens, about 5 minutes. Add tarragon and cook for 30 seconds, then tomatoes. Put pasta in boiling water and cook until tender but not mushy, 10 to 15 minutes.

3. While pasta cooks continue to cook sauce, reducing heat when tomatoes begin to break down. If sauce dries out (with plum tomatoes, this is likely), add some pasta cooking water, about 1/2 cup at a time. When pasta is done, drain it, toss with sauce and remaining oil or butter, and serve immediately.

Yield: 4 servings.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Land of the Lost

So, I spent the first real morning of my vacation in my basement, looking for my bike lock. Monday was the official start of my vacation, but I didn't finish my quarterly proofreading project til yesterday afternoon, so those first two days didn't really count.

My basement is not a pretty place. It's not finished, for one thing, and it gets wet when it rains, so everything down there has to be up off the ground. And there are a lot of things down there. Before I moved here, I lived for seven years in an attic apartment with a massive amount of storage space. Because I am so bad at moving, and because I didn't take any time off from work before I moved, so I was doing all my packing evenings and weekends, I ended up moving a number of boxes directly from the storage space in my old apartment to the basement. And then my parents decided that once I had a basement of my own, that meant that all of the boxes of my stuff sitting in their basement could be transferred. So, there are a lot of boxes.

Two summers ago, my first summer off, I made an effort to tackle the basement and made a bit of progress. Last summer, not so much. This summer, it's on the list. But it wasn't my plan to tackle it today.

But I can't find my bike lock. My bike is in the garage, there is a bike lock key on my key chain, but there is no lock. I am perplexed. So, the basement is the logical place for it to be. I am not always a regular bike rider, but with the $4 gas and all, and given that I live across the street from the bike path, it seemed like it would be nice to be able to do at least my local errands on my bike. So, I was thinking this morning that I could ride my bike into town and get the paper. I can still do that without the lock, but I can't then go to the library or the grocery store. Hence the search.

I am sad to report that though there are many, many things in my basement, there is no bike lock. (Or if there is, it's well hidden.) I know, though, that the minute I buy a new one, the old one will turn up because that's just the way that these things go.

Now, the stranger thing than the bike lock that's lost is my bread knife. It has vanished. I am sure I used it on Saturday night to cut the end of a corn cob off. But Sunday morning, when my brother and nieces came to visit, and I was looking for the knife to cut the loaf of bread I'd just baked, it was nowhere to be found. Usually when I can't find a kitchen implement, it turns up in a drawer or a cabinet, or perhaps underneath the stove, if it's something the cats can bat around. But it is now Wednesday, and my bread knife has not reappeared. I looked in the compost, to see if somehow, I'd thrown it out with the corn husks. I looked in the trash (though, really, how can you throw a large heavy bread knife out without noticing?). I am really puzzled.

In the found category, however, is a pair of gym shorts with pockets that might come in handy, and this t-shirt, a former favorite, languishing in a drawer down there for years.

It's from 1986, the 10th anniversary of coeducation at my oh-so-enlightened college. They didn't exactly show much leadership in this particular arena. In the photos from the day of the trustees meeting in 1976 when they officially voted to go co-ed, there's a photo of all of the women faculty (maybe 5 of them) wearing these t-shirts. They were re-printed for the 10th anniversary in 1986, and I wore mine diligently for years. I think I might have to put it back into my sleeping t-shirt rotation, just for old time's sake.

Fast Forward

Okay, so it's not strawberry season anymore. In my blogging absence, we've leapt right ahead into raspberry and, amazingly, blueberry season. I kind of can't believe I'm actually eating local blueberries. (Though not so local as my own yard--I did finally plant my blueberry bushes, but they're at least a year or two away from producing any large amount of berries, and I'm hoping devoutly they'll do better than the asparagus has done.) Still, the presence of blueberries always reminds me that summer is well underway, that we're closer to fall than to spring. I kind of hate that, especially when it's the first week of my summer vacation.

I have a post from a few weeks ago that I am going to finish and slap up here, but for the moment, I'll just post a photo of my latest garden produce, the conjoined zephyr squash. I suppose if I'd let it grow any bigger, maybe I could have entered it the strangely shaped vegetable competition at the local country fair. Instead, I picked it, I photographed it, and soon, I'm going to eat it.