This week the heat broke in Chicago. Heavy clouds rolled in and the temperature dropped nearly twenty degrees. These are the conditions that bikers dream of, except for the high speed cross-winds that made open stretches along the shore particularly difficult to move through. In exchange, Lake Michigan offered some of the most dramatic views I’ve seen all summer and my trips to and from Hyde Park were some of the most memorable.
I don’t have any pictures, so I will just have to describe it verbally: In the morning, the water was a translucent sea-foam green and choppy. On my return trip just before dusk, it was purplish-gray mixed with orange from the setting sun and the surface was churning angrily. A wave that broke over the wall almost knocked a commuter in front of me off his bike. This is why I love August in Chicago. It starts out very hot – truly the dog days – but offers a few snatches of things to come with its dramatic winds and rains. It isn’t fall yet (I’m not ready for that) but just a momentary relief from the oppressive heat.
I was reminded by this windy weather of my first August in Chicago, in 2003. I had finished my freshman year of college and stayed over for the summer. I had a summer job in the marketing department of an architecture firm and was living in a 1-bedroom apartment with a roommate in Hyde Park. I slept on an air mattress in the living room, where the extremely loud fan kept me awake but offered a welcome breeze since the apartment was on the third floor and wasn’t air conditioned. There were drunken escapades on 54th street and dramatized readings of the Hobbit. A friend and I created an imaginary cast of office characters based on our “corporate” jobs and devised episodes in which they all interacted. I wish we had written them down.
I remember well biking through Washington Park on a day in August much like these last few, where a storm had downed several large trees and scattered branches everywhere. It felt like I wasn’t even in an inhabited city, but in some post-apocalyptic ghost town.
That summer is also vivid because it was in some ways the last of an era. By the next August, I had come out of the closet and was headed to the U.K. for a year. Although I went back into hiding for the first few months I was abroad, my state of mind had changed and things would not be the same after that. That August, my mind was boiling over with a toxic combination of self-hatred, denial and uncertainty about the future, but now I look back on it with a sort of fondness, as it represents a moment of naïveté both childish and comforting, a last attempt at trying to play the role I thought I should but knew I wouldn’t.
I don’t remember much of what I was cooking for dinner those days. It probably involved a large amount of pasta and some of the old standbys I had inherited from childhood: a gumbo here, a stuffed grape-leaf there. Back then I wasn’t hip to the fact that vegetables were seasonal and that one can derive extraordinary pleasure from cooking based on what appears at a market stand. I’m still not totally seasonal but I have come to embrace a whole new array of vegetables since I started trying to be. Zucchini is one of those new-found delights. I mentioned before that I was on a zucchini kick recently and this recipe shows why.
I generally don’t like substitute-foods- I mean tofu or soy-based meat replacements, gluten-free this and that. I’d rather cook a vegetable like a vegetable or just avoid the thing I can’t or won’t have by eating something else entirely. This pseudo-pasta made of shaved zucchini won me over though. Since Cesar is living without wheat now, we’ve been experimenting and something about this just seems naturally good and right. The zucchini is almost meaty and when pan-seared, loses some of its water. The key is to fry until just crisp but not too crisp.
Since zucchini and tomato are best friends and since their seasons are currently overlapping, a savory, tomato-based pasta sauce is an obvious compliment for this summer squash. I used my favorite [Bolognese recipe] and it was perfect. I used tinned tomatoes since I didn’t have any fresh around that night, but you could easily substitute fresh ones. Choose large, red, sweet and juicy ones, pan sear them to brown the edges and release the juices, give them a good mash in the pan, add salt and let them stew in their juice for a few minutes until you add it to the other ingredients. The tomatoes have arrived and the zucchinis are still on the stands, it’s August and there’s a slight coolness in the air, and there is no dish more perfect than this one to celebrate that.
Ingredients (for two):
4 medium to large green zucchinis
olive oil and salt to taste
Wash the zucchini and trim off the flower buds at the ends if they have them. With a vegetable peeler, carefully shave off strands of the skin lengthwise – the longer the better. Save these – you want both the skin and the inner flesh for color and texture. We used a peeler with a serrated edge that gave thinner strips like spaghetti, but a regular one will give you fatter strips more like fettuccine – just as good.
Continue peeling, rotating the zucchini as you go along, until you reach the inner core with the seeds. At this point, you won’t be able to get very good strands since the flesh gets very soft, but you can chop this part up and eat it as an appetizer with oil and vinegar while the meal is getting ready.
Heat a tablespoon or two olive oil in a large shallow pan over medium heat. Add the shaved zucchini strands and pan fry with some salt until they release their water, the water evaporates and the strands are just beginning to brown. This should take no more than 7 to 8 minutes.
Serve this with hot bolognese or another tomato-based sauce and add plenty of parmesan for garnish- the parmesan makes the dish into a real meal.