My friend Kate (hi Kate!) lent me a great book while I was pregnant, called Momma Zen. As you might suspect, it’s kind of about the Zen lessons embedded within motherhood. It’s the sort of thing that can be completely cheesy and seem obvious, but that’s only when you approach it intellectually. When it finally hits you at the visceral, or even spiritual, level, then you suddenly realize how very profound a collection of mundane observations can be.
I just dug it out of one of the boxes of books we haven’t yet unpacked – there’s a good pile of those; they’re hiding in our bedroom and in a closet in our little office room so the outside world doesn’t know that we kind of burned out with the unpacking midstream – to give back to her so she can reread it. As I took it out, I started flipping back through it. I read it while I was pregnant, not actually quite a momma yet, and so many of the messages weren’t able to reach me viscerally. Now they did, each one that I glanced at as I flipped through an assortment of pages.
One really jumped out, one that I needed right at that moment. The author was writing about being at a spiritual meditation retreat. There, she was working her butt off at the various duties assigned to her, ringing the prayer bell, chanting, meditating, and so on, but towards the end of the retreat one of the masters came to her and told her, “you have one of the worst work ethics I’ve ever seen.” She was completely taken aback, knowing that she’s actually a very hard worker and certain that she’d been putting a huge effort into the work of the retreat. But, the master continues, “you have one of the worst work ethics I’ve ever seen – you turn everything into work.”
That is me to a tee. Whether it’s a weekend, and I’m supposedly relaxing while getting a few things done around the house, or I’m working on writing or research or art or music or cooking or playing with my darling little boy, I have a tendency to view it as work and try to work hard at it. So that I can do it “right” somehow – right according to some unknowable, unpleasable, unpredictable, unrealistic standard, one that I don’t even know what is, which is the fabulously devious way I have set myself up to be able to be constantly struggling to work harder and do better, no matter how I am doing or how hard I am working.
I have a terrible work ethic. It was so important for me to hear that at that moment. Particularly because at that moment my back was aching, my legs were tight, and my patience was frayed from chasing after Espen, constantly removing things from his mouth, catching him before he hit his head on a sharp edge, cheering for him whenever he made an effort to do something new, soothing him when he was overtired but couldn’t sleep. It’s legitimately exhausting “work,” (wonderful, rewarding, magical, but exhausting. Parenting just is.) especially when you have other “work” you need to get done, thus dividing your attention and multiplying your guilt, no matter what you are focused on at that moment. But, exhaustion is not a sign of failure, nor are slightly frazzled nerves. And these little interactions and tasks needn’t be work in the way I make them. I can be exhausted and frazzled and instead of working at it, I can simply cherish every moment of being with my little baby as he is transforming – suddenly so quickly – from a baby into a child before my eyes. I can, even though too often I don’t. Much the same goes for my other tasks; I can relish the great fortune and opportunity of having these things to do that actually interest me and can inspire me, if only I don’t constantly work-ify them.
It’s a stance toward life that I need to, um, work on. Ha.
One of the wonderful things in summer is that meals don’t seem to need to be as much work. When it’s hot, complex food doesn’t even sound good. I find myself wanting nothing but wedges of cantaloupe draped with a couple pieces of prosciutto, or a slew of fresh vegetables tossed together with plenty of vinaigrette and accompanied by a simply prepared fillet of fish, or maybe a slice of bread spread with mayonnaise and topped with steamed shrimp and dill. Nothing fussy. Things that need to be assembled more than they really need to be cooked.
Pasta tossed with plenty of summer vegetables is one of the best examples of this type of summer meal. No thinking, just some chopping, maybe some sauteing, grilling, a quick roast. Then toss and serve. This sort of meal, I’ve always considered dependent on plenty of good olive oil. In the summer, I don’t think of butter like I do in the winter. Winter is the snowy countries where cows and goats roam near fields of root vegetables. It’s all meat and cabbage, turnips, and butter. Summer is the sunny countries around the Mediterranean, all tomatoes, and zucchini, eggplant and olive oil. Until I came across Suzanne Goin’s haricots verts a la Nicoise, in her newest book The AOC Cookbook, that is.
Haricots verts a la Nicoise, in the style of Suzanne Goin, turns out to be all about butter. (I love you Suzanne Goin!!!!!!) Butter with anchovies, which (alongside browned butter) is one of the best forms of butter, I do believe. The dish is summer resplendent. Green beans, summer squash, cherry tomatoes all cooked just until they yield up their richest, sunniest flavors, then bathed in anchovy butter and gently garnished with basil. It’s an addictive way of preparing summer vegetables. And if you balk at adding butter on top of olive oil, just remember that butter is back. 🙂 Also, if you toss the vegetables with some pasta, that butter will get spread out between the servings. Of course, I also recommend doing as we did and adding some crumbled crisp pancetta, which makes it richer, but nothing crazy in my humble opinion.
I think these haricots (et al.) would be just as good with polenta as with pasta. Or you can use them as a side dish alongside something grilled, which is actually how the recipe was originally intended. But, a quick veggie-packed pasta is so little work. And that’s what we’re all about right now – well, that and drinking rose, which pairs perfectly with this pasta, so all our bases are covered.
- ¾ lbs. haricots verts (green beans), stems removed but tails left on
- ½ lb. summer squash, sliced into ⅛ inch thick slices
- ½ pint cherry tomatoes, halved
- 3 Tbs. olive oil
- 3 medium shallots, thinly sliced
- 1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
- 1 heaping teaspoon minced anchovy
- 2 Tbs. unsalted butter
- ½ lemon
- 3 Tbs. sliced basil leaves
- ¾ lb. spaghetti or linguine noodles
- a few pieces of cooked pancetta or bacon, broken to bits (optional. You could also use crumbled feta or grated Parmesan)
- salt and pepper
- Bring a pot of salt water to a boil, add the haricots and cook for two minutes, then drain and transfer to a platter or baking sheet to cool. Refill the pot with salted water and start it reheating to use for the pasta.
- In an awfully large frying pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat for a couple of minutes, until it seems thin and shimmery. Add the shallot and thyme plus ½ tsp. salt and a bit of pepper. Cook, stirring continuously, for 4 minutes. (Turn the heat down if the shallot begins to burn.)
- When the shallot caramelizes, add the anchovy and the butter and stir. Let the butter melt and foam, then stir in the summer squash and stir well.
- Cook for a couple minutes, then turn the heat to high and add the haricots and another ½ tsp. salt. Cook for another 3 or 4 minutes, until the squash is getting soft. Then, add the cherry tomatoes and let them cook until they are sizzling and popping and starting to soften. At this point, cook for one minute more, then take the vegetables off the heat.
- In the meantime, cook the pasta until al dente. Drain the pasta and toss it with the cooked vegetables. Stir in the basil and sprinkle with pancetta/bacon bits or crumbled cheese. Adjust the salt and pepper to taste, then serve.