Thursday, June 18, 2009

Summer Solstice: Long Days, Quick Meals

As we creep our way towards Summer Solstice here in the far North, the days are growing increasingly long, with about 21 hours of visible light. It's been weeks since I woke up in the night and saw true darkness through the slats of the blinds. The setting sun gradually lowers over the course of hours, like a skipping stone skimming across mountain tops ; nothing like the straight sink of sunsets near the equator. The time stamp on the above photo was 10:46 pm.

This time of year seems to simultaneously energize and tire me. I've heard that the lack of true darkness sets our hypothalmuses off kilter, and reduces the amount of deep, restful sleep we get. Plus, so much daylight brings all kinds of social and recreational opportunities, and increases my work output in a way that winter's sleepy quiet does not.

Ironically, with such endless days, I have found myself short on time. Too much activity, too much to do. It's not uncommon for me to feel less like a human being this time of year, and more like a human doing. So when dinner time rolls around I'm more interested in quick and easy throw-together meals than elaborate feasts. What's fast, fresh, and can be served from one pot? Here's the answer I came up with this week...Enjoy it, and Happy Solstice! I'm off to go do stuff...

Beans and Greens Fusilli
with Sausage and Garlic Coins

serves 3 to 4

This comes together super fast, so make sure you have the ingredients ready and in place by the time you start sauteing the garlic. I used Italian chicken sausage for this, reducing the fat by about half.

8 ounces fusilli or penne pasta
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced into coins
3/4 lb. italian sausage (sliced if using links)
pinch of chili flakes
3/4 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup white wine
1 - 15 ounce can great northern or cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
5 ounces pre-washed baby arugula or spinach
1 cup halved grape tomatoes
salt and pepper, to taste
2 ounces crumbled feta or goat cheese

1. Open the wine and pour yourself a glass. Ahhh... day is done.

2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and set aside.

3. While the pasta is cooking, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add sausage and cook, stirring until browned, 7 to 10 minutes. Remove sausage from skillet, drain if necessary, and set aside.

4. In the same large skillet, heat remaining tablespoon of oil over medium heat, and add garlic coins. Cook, stirring, just until they begin to color. Watch carefully as the garlic will become bitter if it gets too brown. As soon as you start to see the edges of the garlic turning gold, immediately add chicken stock and white wine. Add chili flakes and simmer until liquid is reduced by 1/3.

5. Add sausage and beans to pan and cook stirring, 1 to 2 minutes or until heated through. Add greens and cook, stirring until they begin to wilt. Add pasta and fresh tomatoes, season generously with salt and pepper, and toss to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning. Dish it up and sprinkle with cheese.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Cucumber Watermelon Licuado: What a Warm Day in Alaska Tastes Like

Juneau, Alaska has been at it's best lately. Clear skies, calm winds, and warm temperatures. That may not sound like a big deal if you're not from here, but for this town, it's all anyone can talk about. See, Juneau is part of a giant temperate rainforest called the Tongass, and the rain here can be downright relentless. Sometimes it rolls in, and it doesn't leave for a very long time. Our first summer here, it rained every single day in August. Our apartment had a metal roof, and the sound of the rain falling on it went from soothing, to darkly romantic, to annoying, to pull-your-hair-out-insanity-inducing. I was working as a sea kayaking guide that summer, and spent a lot of rainy, windy days on the water, with cold red fingers frozen to my paddle, trying to convince people that they were having a good time.

Allow me to paint you a picture of a typical summer day in Juneau: The waters of the Inside Passage are stirred into chop. It's 52 degrees to match the 52 state flags that line our downtown waterfront, which are flapping at full attention, wet and snapping in the wind that so often blows down Gastineau Channel. Steep mountainsides that rise straight from the sea are covered in a thick dark blanket of Sitka Spruce, Hemlock, and the rather unfriendly undergrowth of Devil's Club. Branches hang with minty green moss called Old Man's Beard, and the mountainsides seem to be breathing smoke, as fog rises from the wet earth, toward an even wetter sky. On those days I try to pretend I'm in one of those Japanese mountain paintings, and take an extra dose of vitamin D.

Last summer I could have counted the sunny days on my two hands. The thermometer seemed to never get above 55, and I wore wool socks through May, June, and July, until August when fall came and it really got cold again. Then I added long underwear to the ensemble. But this spring, actually since February, we have been getting a LOT of precious sun. And when the sun comes to Juneau, Juneau freaks out (in a good way).

With ample daylight-- more than 18 hours and rising until the solstice-- we try to pack in as much time outdoors as we can. The flower beds have been planted, the hiking trails are in use, the fishing lines are in the water, motorcycles are roaring down the road, the sea kayaks are tied to the roof racks, and children are swimming in these cold cold waters. Sunglasses are imperative, not just because our eyes are unaccustomed to the light, but for protection from the glaring whiteness of skin that hasn't seen the sun in a very long time.

We must take advantage of the sun when it's here, and it is unspoken code in Juneau that when it's sunny, things like leaving work early or cancelling appointments are kindly overlooked, and sometimes even encouraged. Nevertheless, there is still work to do, so we make the most of those workdays by eating lunch outside, or getting a walk in before firing up the grill for dinner.

I have had a lot of work to do, and spent far too many hours in front of the computer this week. One particularly sunny day, I could take it no longer. By 3 pm the sun had made it's way around to our front porch, which gratefully overlooks the water. I put on shorts and tank top, and "hit the deck". Because this weather is so rare to us, I think we are more alert to it's effects and sensations. I sat there in the sun, feeling the gift of this warm day. The sun warmed my skin, the breeze tickled the tiny hairs on my arms, and my shoes (and wool socks) were finally off. The tension between my shoulder blades melted away as my muscles warmed, and I got out my yoga mat.
It felt sooo good, stretching and lolling about in the sun like a cat, reaching for the sky in tree pose, imitating the mountains in triangle. The sky was alive with birds: crows, bald eagles, and Stellar Jays-- one of which came for a visit on our porch railing. It was one of life's really good moments, feeling and seeing and hearing every detail of a real summer day in AK. It was a moment that demanded not only my full attention, but celebration. How does one celebrate alone? At 3 in the afternoon on their front porch? Here's how:

Cucumber Watermelon Licuado
(makes about 5 cups)

This Mexican refreshment is sweet, cold, and tastes like a sunny summer day. Use the leftovers as a base for rose-colored mojitos or margaritas if you like.
  • 1 cucumber, peeled and chopped into 1 inch pieces (about 1.5 cups)
  • 3 cups watermelon, seedless or seeds removed, and cut into 1" pieces
  • 1 lime, juice only
  • 2/3 cup hot water
  • 1/4 to 1/3 cup honey (to taste)
  • 1 cup cold water
  • 1 cup ice
In a blender combine cucumber, watermelon, and lime juice. Combine the honey and hot water and stir to until honey dissolves. Add honey mixture to blender along with cold water and ice. Puree all contents in blender on low speed. Pour mixture through a wire mesh strainer into a pitcher or bowl, stirring with a wooden spoon until most of the liquid has drained. Discard pulp. Pour over ice and enjoy! May be stored up to 3 days in fridge.
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