It is the cusp season. Our countertops sound the alarm of tomatoes: "They're red! They're ripe! Something needs to happen with them! The fruit flies are coming!"; the summer perfume of basil lingers in the kitchen; our freezer and shelves are filling with salsa, sauce, and jam; our Anni housemate is like the tomatillos overflowing their quart baskets, each one so ripely full that it's splitting its husk. Her baby is due this week, and she is like an icon of the season, drifting through the house with her enormous peach of a belly--part now, part future.
And that's what it's like, because it's fall too, now. We drive past field after field embroidered with rows of butternut squash, and Michael, not a lover of squash, is incredulous. "Do they feed those to the cattle or something?" He is serious. "I mean, surely it's not people who are eating all of those." Oh, but it is! Soon it will be us too, with our warming and warm-hued soups, with our candles on the table as the evenings grow short. Birdy and I are reading Little House on the Praire, which always feels like the perfect Autumn book, since they are always harvesting this and that before some bad thing happens ("Is Pa still making bullets?" Michael asks, passing through the room. It is true that Pa melts many spoonfuls of pewter by the fire every night.) Here in the modern world, we go to bed with the ceiling fans spinning away the last of the muggy air, and then wake chilly-nosed under our down comforters. It is neither one thing nor yet the other.
It is also, if I may speak less romantically for a moment, allergy season. Ragweed? Sunflowers? Whatever it is, it's dreadful. Ben, practicing his recorder on my bed last night, stopped and sniffed into its mouthpiece with that delighted revulsion that comes from smelling the strange accumulation of your own spit. "Smell my recorder hole!" he said, holding it out to me. "Weirdly, it smells like lobster!" But I couldn't. Because I had a Kleenex wedged into each nostril. I want him to remember me as beautiful and elegant, canning tomatoes in the kitchen with my hair up. Instead of sprawled out beside him on the bed and stuffed with tissues, rasping and hawking to try and scratch my allergic throat.
Still, I did make a beautiful dinner in an effort to get as many tomatoes off of the counter and into our bodies as was possible in a single sitting. I go through tomato-season phases where I make this Italian bread salad nearly every day--I love it so much. The bread gets all soggy and addictively garlicky, and the basil is so bright and pungent, and the tomatoes are just perfect in every way. Unless you're Ben, who will eat this salad, bless him, but only after he picks out the tomatoes. Make it because you've got a baguette staling on your countertop or because you've got tomatoes ripening everywhere or because it will be just such a perfect summer-fall meal. Which it is. You'll see.
Active time: 10 minutes; total time: 40 minutes
Crusty bread, tomatoes, basil, and vinaigrette are constants here, and then there are the variables: a bit of chopped red onion and white beans (both of which I add here) or cucumbers or fresh mozzarella, which is my favorite thing to add, but which I was too cheap to buy yesterday. Still, the beans make it a complete meal, albeit a nice, light one.
Part of a large crusty baguette or other good loaf of bread, cut into 3/4-inch cubes (enough to make 4-6 cups)
2 pounds perfectly ripe tomatoes (about 4 to 6), cored and cut into chunks
1/2 cup basil leaves, stacked and slivered
1 15-ounce can cannellini beans, drained
1/2 a small red onion, finely chopped
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1 large garlic clove, pressed
1 teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
Put bread, tomatoes, basil, beans, and onion into a large bowl. Whisk together remaining ingredients. Pour enough dressing over the salad to moisten it, tossing it together with your hands, then let it sit for around half an hour to get soggy. Taste, and add more dressing if it needs it (although the tomatoes will have given off a lot of juice by now, so it may simply need a bit of salt.