The simplicity of summer eating
Whether it’s the radiant pastels and shadows of a sunset, the brilliance of a blooming sunflower, the delicate dignity of a daisy, or the infectious giggle of a toddler, the most beautiful things in life tend to be the simplest. And as obvious as this is, we often overlook it. Life is busy, after all, and most of us make it unnecessarily complicated. It’s easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of life with its demands and distractions. It’s easy to overlook what’s most important.
One of things that I love most about being Catholic is our liturgical seasons. There’s a natural ebb and flow to the year: times of feasting and times of fasting, times to work and times to rest. These seasons are deeply human, and embracing them helps me to experience the fullness of human life, the fullness of my life.
Lent is over. The Easter season has passed, and we now find ourselves in summertime, which liturgically falls in what we call Ordinary Time. The term ordinary time can convey a sense of being humdrum or blah. But it’s anything but blah. After the commotion and chaos of the school year, when we compulsively try to fit more into our day than is possible, we finally get a break. The grace of summer can be the opportunity to embrace the simple.
One of things that I love most about being Catholic is our liturgical seasons.
I used to teach high school. For years it was always the same. Summer would arrive, and for the first couple of weeks, I would crash. I would feel totally lost, despondent. And inevitably, I would get physically sick. I had pushed myself so hard for so long to finish up the school year that when I finally slowed down, when I finally stopped, the magnitude of the stress I had put on myself hit me full force. What helped me recover was the routine of a daily practice. And it is this type of routine that continues to help me even today.
Start a daily practice this summer
A daily practice can be immensely helpful in life. A daily practice grounds us and connects us. It alleviates stress; it promotes consistency and continuity. It could be something overtly spiritual, such as attending daily Mass or praying the rosary every day. It could also be a set time to read and reflect on Scripture or engage in prayerful journaling. Perhaps it’s something outdoors such as gardening or physical exercise: walking, hiking, running, biking, or swimming.
Whatever daily practice you choose, I have found that summertime is the perfect time to implement one. Summer is the ideal time to return to the simple things in life, those things that bring us the most health in life: nature, physical activity, relationships, and simple foods.
I’m not a gardener. I don’t have a green thumb. In fact, I’ve joked over the years that I have a black thumb. Every time I try to grow plants, they end up dying a premature death. Well, every time except the first time.
Summer is the ideal time to return to the simple things in life.
In May 1999 my wife and I, married only six months, bought and moved into our first house. We had spent the first six months of our marriage renting the bottom portion of a shotgun house in uptown New Orleans. It was neat to live uptown and take daily afternoon walks to Audubon Park and be so close to world-renowned restaurants and coffee shops. But we had very little personal space and no yard. And we had a little one on the way.
So we moved across Lake Pontchartrain to a new house with a big yard in Abita Springs. Three months later our first child was born. Over the years my wife and I poured ourselves into that yard, building a large wooden playhouse and swing set, planting herbs and flowers and trees, and eventually building a fence all the way around the yard.
But the project I am still most proud of was my first garden. Perhaps I’m proud of it because it was the only successful garden I’ve ever had. Though I have tried, I have never been able to replicate that success.
I’m a huge fan of homegrown tomatoes and cucumbers. With very little knowledge of gardening, I set out in the spring of 2000 to establish a garden where I could grow both. I really had no idea what I was doing. But despite my lack of knowledge, we enjoyed a bumper crop of them that summer, a crop that yielded some of the best salads I’ve ever had.
There’s nothing like enjoying the fruit of your labor, especially when that fruit is a homegrown tomato. And this I know: When it comes to a really good homegrown tomato, less is more. I don’t want to coat it with anything. I want to savor it in all its raw and beautiful succulence.
However, it would look awkward if the family comes to the table for dinner to find at each spot only a plate with a single washed and perfectly round whole fresh tomato … and nothing more. That would be a great “salad” for me, but I understand that others might want a little more.
There’s nothing like enjoying the fruit of your labor, especially when that fruit is a homegrown tomato.
Luckily, the traditional Caprese salad not only features the tomato — it also maintains an elegant simplicity that highlights the best qualities of each of its few ingredients. That being said, it should make sense that the quality of the ingredients for this salad is extremely important.
Use the best you can find: a high-quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar, the freshest mozzarella, and whole basil. Pull out the Maldon Sea Salt Flakes and the freshest black peppercorns. The quality of the ingredients makes all the difference in this salad.
The simplicity of the Caprese salad can be a gentle reminder this summer of what is most important in life: the presence and love of God with us, the gifts he gives us in simple pleasures, in the faces of those we love sitting with us at the table, in the bounty of creation, and in the peace of nature. This summer, allow this simple salad to spark in your heart a song of gratitude to God for every single gift in your life.
Homegrown tomatoes, sliced to desired thickness
Fresh mozzarella, sliced to top tomatoes
Fresh basil leaves, sliced or julienned (chiffonade)
Extra-virgin olive oil, to taste
Balsamic vinegar, drizzled
Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
To prepare: Place sliced tomatoes on a large plate or platter. Top with mozzarella, olive oil, balsamic, basil, salt, and pepper. How to julienne (chiffonade) basil: Wash and dry several fresh basil leaves. Stack the leaves on top of one another and roll them up lengthwise into a tight roll. Using a very sharp knife, slice the roll crosswise very thinly until it’s all sliced. This method will yield a beautiful bunch of long, delicate ribbons of basil, perfect for garnishing your Caprese salad!