Summer is winding down around here, but we seem determined to make the most of the remaining days. We've got one more weekend trip planned, to attend the American Folk Festival up in Bangor. And of course, assuming our amazing summer weather holds up, more trips to the beach to take advantage of ocean water that is finally warm enough for some real swimming!
I remember that, when I was younger, summer seemed like an endless parade of trips to visit grandparents, sleepovers and camp-outs with neighborhood friends, fresh and saltwater swimming and boating, and days upon days of playing outside with my sisters and cousins. Sadly, growing up came with the realization that most people's lives don't shift so drastically toward leisure during the summer. Most jobs aren't seasonal, so we try to fit in all the warm-weather pleasures we enjoyed so freely as children into scattered weekends that feel less like earned time and more like stolen time.
This is where being at home with my kids has its real perks. I feel obligated, like it's my duty, to make sure they experience summer in the same state of blissful ignorance of "real life" that I did. Luckily for me, this means we need to take lots of day trips to fun locations, play outside every chance we get, eat ice cream in the middle of the day, and chase festivals and family parties across the state. I can't really comprehend why no one ever talks about this truly great aspect of parenting: that in order to really do justice to your kids' early years, you'll need to think back to your own childhood and all its glory days, and find ways to give your lovely offspring similar joyous experiences. What a wonderful situation to find oneself in! To realize that being a parent, arguably one of life's most responsible undertakings, also means getting in touch with your inner child on a regular basis, and letting that child out to play. Having fun is practically a requirement!
So yes, we've been enjoying ourselves lately. The kids are loving it, I'm feeling like it's been one of my busiest - and best - summers in a long time, and Josh has even found time to pry himself away from the restaurant to join us on many of our adventures. But this very full life of mine has been missing one thing lately: kitchen time. Lots of running around to social engagements leaves very little time for basic meal preparation, never mind hours in the kitchen to experiment and write recipes. To be truthful, it makes me feel a little unbalanced. I miss that part of my life, the way I imagine someone feels when they lose their cell phone: it's just an ordinary, almost unseen part of my everyday life, one that I'm not really aware of the breadth of my dependence on until it's gone missing.
Thankfully, I've been called on to supply some of the food at these recent gatherings, and so have had to set aside time to prepare a real dish. Not much time, however, because my go-to potluck fare (when I'm not bringing dessert) is almost always the same quick, simple thing: Quinoa Tabouli. It's not original (nothing really is when you're starting with a flavor profile that's thousands of years old), but it's delicious and surprisingly meditative to make.
Meditative? Well, the way I make it at least, it is. I don't make it in the efficient, clean way you would in a "real" kitchen, one which you're paid to be in. I make it messily, stickily, with the understanding that I'm really getting into the food, with all my senses. I like it that way.
I don't follow any tabouli recipe per se, but simply take the flavors I remember that classic bulgur wheat-based salad as having and mix them together in proportions that feel right, adding and subtracting ingredients until the salad is mine completely. A base of cold quinoa. Bright, ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped so that their juices coat my hands as I scoop them into the bowl. Cool cucumbers, fresh and crisp, summer's Zen vegetable. Scallions, mint, and parsley to clear my mind, as their invigorating aromas waft around my head, released from all that green confetti. Creamy, salty feta, feeling it crumble and smear through my fingertips as it tumbles into the bowl. Squeezing a lemon over it all, stirring and folding everything together, and always tasting tasting tasting, looking for the perfect balance. Some salt and pepper and it's done, but if you can let it rest in the fridge for a while, the flavors will meld and intensify for the better.
This tabouli is very good at a potluck, where it shares space on your plate that's piled high with fruit and gluten-free pretzels and curried deviled eggs, and where, in all likelihood, it's eaten absentmindedly as you laugh and share stories with friends old and new. But personally, I like it best all alone. By which I mean really all alone - just me and a bowl of quinoa tabouli, sitting quietly together, savoring the rare quiet, late-afternoon moment. It's my favorite way to slow down and take a break from this crazy beautiful summer.
yields approximately 2 quarts of tabouli
1 cup (pre-cooking measurement) white quinoa, cooked and cooled completely
1 large tomato, or several small ones, coarsely chopped
1 smallish cucumber (I used a pickling cucumber and it was plenty), peeled, quartered and chopped
2 Tbsp finely chopped fresh mint
2 Tbsp finely chopped chives
4 Tbsp coarsely chopped flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
8 oz feta cheese
juice of one lemon
salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste
Combine quinoa, tomatoes, cucumber, mint, chives, parsley, and feta in a medium bowl. At this point, I taste to see if I need to adjust the herb ratio; I like the mint to play a supporting role, not dominate the dish, and sometimes I need extra chives or parsley as a counterweight to a particularly strong bunch of mint. Add the feta, crumbling it with your fingers into irregular chunks. Sprinkle the juice of half of a lemon over the salad, stir, and taste. I love lemon, so always add more lemon juice than I expect to (up to an entire lemon's worth), but you may not like astringency as much as I do, so go with your own tastes here. Season with salt and pepper. If possible, allow the salad to sit, refrigerated, for at least three hours before serving, to allow the flavors to really mix and deepen. Quinoa tabouli keeps, covered and refrigerated, for up to three days.