By Andrea Gargotta
Mama Mia--Where did the summer go? Wasn't it yesterday that I was planning my summer adventures to Carmel and Italy, beginning to harvest my vegetable garden, and sharing outdoor movie night in the yard with friends and family? Today I found myself sifting the shelves at the local office supply store to get school supplies and starting to think about the busyness of fall. As this one-of-a-kind season of no alarm clocks comes to an end, there are a few things I continue do for myself and my family to help preserve summertime's magical feeling:
Keep shopping locally.
Whenever possible I shop at local mom and pop stores--even if this means more time driving or planning to park in a neighborhood that I can explore by foot. It is worth the effort. Small shop owners are usually passionate about their inventory and unique treasures. I have also built relationships with many local artisans and merchants, and they know my kids by name. I have found that this sense of community--so easy to build during the lazier summer months--is a necessary component to feeling grounded as I get busier and more stretched for time.
Try something new with summertime berries.
My latest favorite summertime treat is flavored ice cubes. Any combination can be made with whatever is ripest at the moment. I love squeezing mandarins, a little lime, and fresh muddled mint together. I shake and then pour into ice molds (readily available in fun shapes and sizes at most dollar stores). When friends come over (or Mama has had a long day!), I simply pop a few in a glass and pour on the vodka or gin. I add them to sparkling mineral water for the kids. Other combinations are cucumber and basil; lemon, mint, and a bit of simple syrup (made with melted sugar and hot water or agave); fresh-juiced peaches (or any fruit found in your own garden or local farmers' market). Simple and oh-so-fresh!
Bring on the herbs.
Whether you shop at the local market for your own or grow them in a windowsill herb garden, continue to cook with herbs. I love to get my fresh basil, parsley, or oregano (whichever is in abundance) and throw it into the food processor with just a dollop of pure olive oil. I add just a few drops of fresh lemon juice to preserve the vibrancy. Then I spoon into ice trays and freeze. Ecco! You have fresh herbs whenever you need them. They will melt in sauces or soups. Or if you need them for a roast or other recipe simply leave out for 30 minutes to defrost.
Create your own family's secret sauce.
I am Italian, so my garden is choc full of all varieties of peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, and onions. The latest obsession in my house is this yummy spread, dip sauce invention. My 11-year-old son LOVES it! I send the kids out on the hillside with a basket and tell them to grab whatever vegetables are ripe. Then I dice them all up and sauté them in a pan with olive oil. I simmer it very slowly until it all melts together. I add salt and pepper, and if we have hot peppers ready I also add that those in for kick. The end result is similar to caponata. We eat it with everything--grilled meats, a cheese plate, or a sandwich spread. I prepare it once a week and just leave it in the fridge. Hot, cold or room temperature equally molto buono. And since the vegetable proportions change based on what you have on hand it is always a new flavor palate.
Shop at your farmers' market.
Always pick up extra berries at the farmers market. I freeze them in small batches and then have them on hand all year for smoothies and muffins. And if you haven't experimented with fruit jam, try it. I just put whatever berries I have into my copper pot, and add a little sugar and a squeeze of lemon. I slowly simmer until it is all melted together. It's simple and fresh--if you make small batches there is no canning or jarring to stress over. And it lasts about a week.
Try making a stress-free Summertime Fun Book.
If you're anything like me, you probably carry your camera everywhere. I take a crazy amount of photos of my kids with my iPhone and camera. I have trained myself do load them onto my computer every evening. As soon as I download them I select my favorites and drag them into a folder. (Since the computer is doing the work, I tend to multitask while I'm preparing dinner.)
At the end of the summer, you can click on your folder to see a collection of your favorites. I turn these favorites into Summertime Fun Books for my kids. I just drag them into shutter fly or iPhoto Mac books and in 30 minutes I have created a treasure trove of memories. I don't overthink the photos or overly edit them, which keeps the book very authentic to my children's experiences. When I want to make an extra special book I will select a dozen really special photos and then make up a story to go with them, often incorporating my kids' names and their friends into the story.
I've learned the most important thing to preserving summer is to create a few rituals that can be shared with friends and family and to make them uniquely yours. And to have fun in the process.
Professional chef and party planner Andrea Beth Gargotta has built a career on effortlessly dishing up a variety of healthy, exotic dishes. She is known for her art of detail in every aspect of the culinary experience--from menu development to shopping to clean up. She opened and ran her highly acclaimed craft-services company, Andrea's Craft Service, with the goal of creating a healthier food experience on the film set, gaining admirers such as Tim Allen, Mary J. Blidge, Michael Bay, Joe Pytka, Adam Sandler, Jane Seymour, and countless other A-listers. She is at work on a book about her culinary experiences.