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Salad Days

[Flowers near the sea, July 2008.]

Sometimes I think I am a very strange person. Take today, for example. It’s warmish (thankfully), the sun is out for the most part, I’m helping prepare a barbecue at work (yes at work, welcome to San Francisco …) and for some reason I’m feeling nostalgic for fall. After all my lamentations about chilly coastal days and the fog and how high I must pull the covers up at night it’s true: this morning I miss that fall-feeling of anticipation and promise, both.

San Francisco is a lovely place in the fall. If you climb up to one of the high points in the city on a clear day — up the steep, tree-lined Filbert Steps to Coit Tower, perhaps — you can watch the sailboats sail in and out of the bay, Alcatraz and Angel Islands gleaming in the distance. Sometimes the fog holds off on its slow stealing in over the hills, and if you look to the left, Golden Gate Bridge shines strong and steady with the Pacific Ocean, and adventure, winking beyond it.

These are the kind of days when all you want to do is pack up a cheese sandwich and an apple and maybe a bit of chocolate and go tramping up and down the dunes at the beach. More often than not it will be calm, the sea spread out like a flag before you. If you’re lucky you might catch a glimpse of seals sticking their heads out of the waves to look curiously back at you (I like to call to them like dogs). When you tumble home at last, sunburned and happily exhausted, a salad made from the dregs of the tomatoes and corn on the cob, along with lots of crusty bread, makes a simple and satisfying supper.

But today is August — nearly mid-August by my last glance at the calendar — which means Indian summer is hot on its heels, which means it’s time for salads made from all the goodness of the farmers’ market or kitchen gardens (if you’re so lucky) in these last few months of the best time of the year. When I was camping we ate a lot of good, carb-loaded food which helped with the uphill climbs but which also made me sorely miss something fresh and green.

The first night out there was chilly; the fog had come in far too early for my liking (really, there was only a short window of sun and as we had, ahem, left a bit late the entirety of the 6 miles hiked was spent in a cloud of mist). By the time we reached camp and set up the tent I was freezing; I piled on thermal shirts and a sweatshirt and a jacket and wool socks and still was cold. My lettuce probably would have jittered off of my fork if I’d brought a salad, but the next night — oh sweet, sweet Wildcat and your endless beach and actually getting to see the sun set over the ocean for once — was well, I won’t say it was balmy, exactly, since we’re dealing with Northern California here, but it was much warmer and much more conducive to salad-eating.

Alas! All I’d brought was pasta with dried mushrooms and pesto (delicious, but not what I was craving) but I dreamed of salad that night, under a sky so full up with stars you could hardly see the blackness behind them. It made me think of Scotland and my trip there when my friend and I lay down on the road on Skye, deserted except for the sheep, to look up at a sky choked with falling stars (I like to think they fell just so because it was my birthday).

[Second night dinner, July 2008.]

All this to say that I think it’s ridiculous I’m thinking (and almost-wishing) for fall when we are in these lovely latest of late summer days. I’m sure to be wishing for August in late October, when the time change slips us into days of abbreviated light, and even if today I miss that sparkling, anticipatory energy that heralds the in-between season these soft, slow afternoons have a specialness all their own.

Days like these, even when the fog blows in early, make me want to quickly steam a pile of beets, slice them thickly and toss with a few almonds, radicchio leaves, and slivers of red onion. Or toss baby chard and spinach leaves with blue cheese, walnuts, and strawberries and smooth the whole thing out with a creamy basil vinaigrette. Or pile sweet and tender corn cut from its cob into a bowl with fat and juicy heirloom tomatoes and avocado. Or do what we did the other night, which was to chop up a head of lettuce and lace it liberally with thinly sliced radishes, cucumbers, tiny tomatoes, carrots, and pine nuts.

With a waning summer full of salads, I hope I can put away this foolish wishing for fall until it actually is time for it to burst into sun and endless blue skies, trips to New England, deadlines, a birthday, and the return of pumpkins to the markets. All things happen in their proper time I know, and so I must temper my impatience with this knowledge — preferably as I tuck a big bowl of salad underneath my chin and dig in.

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