With climate collapse pushing Vermont temperatures seemingly ever hotter, it’s tempting, I admit, to head to the hardware store for an air conditioner, a new fan or a kiddie pool when it gets really bad the way it did last week.
But I’m a northern New Englander. I’m cheap. I conserve. I make do. When I was growing up, no one in our town had air conditioning or much need of it. During rare sticky spells, you headed to the beach or out for ice cream, or you sat very, very still with a cold wet towel draped over you. If you were extra lucky, with a good book and a glass of lemonade in hand, you beat your brothers to the hammock suspended between two shade trees.
In our house that’s still what we do. Because we have no health concerns that require low humidity and cool temperatures, we use old-fashioned air conditioning, i.e. open windows and cross-ventilation and the outdoor “rooms” of the garden. Once a summer or so we’ll haul out fans, and if it is insufferably hot, we’ll even place bowls of ice cubes right up close to them for the air to move across, a nifty trick my mother taught me as a kid. We’ll sit nearby to catch the chill and to be lulled into stillness by the whirring sounds of the blades. We’ll sleep on the screened-in porch and listen to the breeze, when there is one tossing the poplar leaves, and when there is none, the drone of hot-weather insects. Sure we suffer a bit, but that’s not all bad. While I complain mightily, I think it’s important to feel the fluctuations of temperature and humidity. Reminders of what we’ve done to the earth and to ourselves.
But really, the best remedy for the heat is the garden.
For one thing, the fruit trees and berry bushes create shady avenues, their leaves absorbing heat. A lawn cannot cool things off unless you plunk down a sprinkler and run through it. I’m not crazy about using precious water that way. But all those tall tomato plants, those beans snaking up the poles, those currant bushes fluffing out? They’re feeding us and keeping us cool. Well, cool-er. Garden up your yard and you won’t have to zoom around on a lawn mower, using gas, and you’ll do your health a world of good.
Even if you can’t grow your own food, just think of all the produce in season in the markets for no-cook or low-cook meals and thirst quenchers. Right now that means strawberries, cucumbers, summer squash, figs and fennel, plus mint and lemon verbena and basil from the herb patch. Later on melons and tomatoes. Ayurvedic traditions point to these fruits and vegetables as particularly beneficial during hot months. The ancients knew what they were about — they turned to cooling foods to help provide heat relief from the inside out and to scented waters to soothe skin and eyes, and to herbs and flowers to mask the smells of summer in the city.
While I do place sprigs of dried lavender in clothing drawers for a breath of summer in midwinter, and love the scent of creeping thyme and rosemary crushed underfoot, I use herbs and flowers primarily to lift the flavors of summer foods, to make raw pestos to dress grilled bread or snap peas, and to brew iced teas. Indeed, before work many mornings, when the dew has just dried — when essential oils are at their height — I’ll put on the kettle and head to the garden to pick two handfuls of mint, one of lemon verbena, one of chamomile flowers, a few branches of lemon balm, three or four lavender flowers and a bunch of red currants to place in the teapot to steep. After five-10 minutes, I strain the tisane into a pitcher, slice an organic lemon into it and cool the mix for an after-work refresher. You just can’t buy that in a bottle. And it takes next to no time to make.
The same with the lowly cucumber, my favorite cooling food. Instead of taking new-fangled, sugar-infused drinks or fancy bars to the lake or on mountain trails, I put a couple of chilled cucumbers into my backpack. Nothing could be simpler to help regain fluids and important minerals and vitamins. Nothing could be tastier. How have we forgotten such basic solutions?
Cukes also make incredible raw soups in blended or chopped form and salads. But I can get bored with the same old recipes, truth be told, and am always searching for new taste twists. Thanks to Jaga N.A. Argentum, an online friend, fellow artist and incredible vegan cook in Berlin, Germany, I have a whole new set of super-cooling recipes. (See his website at perpetualfuss.com.) He’s a genius at creating tantalizing flavor combinations with a few, common ingredients. Like his basil-cucumber sorbet with grilled grapes or his lime-basil lemonade. His salad of strawberries, black pepper, balsamic vinegar, lime and tomatoes is a fusion of perfect pitch and balance for a hot summer day. Take his salad to your next picnic and watch people ooh and ahh and forget all about being hot and miserable.
And then, after you’ve eaten these delicious, refreshing salads and sorbets and sipped the drinks, if you’re smart, really smart, you’ll do as folks in tropical and Southern European climes have always done: suspend all activity for the heat of the day. Get yourself out of the office and onto that hammock, under those shady trees. Breeze optional.
Strawberry Summer Salad
Take a good handful of strawberries and one of small sweet tomatoes. Wash and cut them in quarters. Deseed a small red chili (be aware of how hot-spicy you like it) and mince. Mix ingredients with an equal amount of rocket (arugula) and fresh basil to taste. Create a vinaigrette of equal parts, about a tablespoon each, extra virgin olive oil, tomato or balsamic vinegar and lemon juice; add minced fresh garlic (or garlic scapes) and sea salt to taste.
Great as is for lunch or serve next to some roast potatoes and a good home-made veggie-burger with grilled zucchini for dinner.
1. Cut up a handful of fresh basil and transfer to a tea infusion bag or tea ball set into a small pot. Bring a cup of water to boil with the basil, remove basil and let water cool down.
2. Create simple syrup with this water by reheating (don’t boil) with one cup of sugar until sugar dissolves.
3. Add one cup of freshly squeezed lime juice and another 3 to 4 cups of cold water to taste. Chill before serving with fresh sliced lime and basil.
Also, you can make great sorbet or a granita out of this mixture.
1. Chop the basil and put in a tea-infusion bag or tie it up in a bit of cheesecloth.
2. Peel cucumbers, de-seed, chop and put in a blender until mushy.
3. Make a simple syrup by heating the sugar and water (don’t boil); when the sugar has dissolved, add the basil, lime juice and cucumber. Mix well.
4. Remove basil and let the mixture cool until it reaches room temperature.
5. Transfer to a bowl and put in the freezer, stir every hour or so. It will take at least a few hours for it to freeze. Alternatively you can use an ice cream maker.
1. Create a simple syrup of water, vodka and sugar by heating it slowly until sugar dissolves.
2. Chop thyme and add to taste.
3. Bring the syrup to boil and stir until it thickens.
Though the alcohol disappears as the vodka gets boiled, for those who wish to have an alcohol-free alternative, use 2/3 cup apple juice with 1/3 cup water. It’s a distinctly different taste, but works well with the other components.
1. Heat a grill pan or wok, coated with a tablespoon of olive oil until sizzling hot.
2. Add grapes and stir them constantly for 1 to 2 minutes, they should start to darken.
3. Grind or sprinkle salt to taste on them.
4. Serve the grapes directly (when still warm) with the sorbet and syrup.