My sister Janet and I were first introduced to our little house in the Beechwood section of Callicoon over 25 years ago. The first thing I noted was the front porch. We walked through the house, and at the opposite end was a pair of large glass sliding doors leading out to (could it be?) a back porch!
We would not have considered a house that didn’t have a porch or deck of some sort. We like nothing better than to sit outside at every opportunity we get during the warm summer months. Our house is set back from the road, and both porches afford us a good deal of privacy. This is most useful, as I have been known to remove my shirt, mid-lunch, when the sun suddenly peeks out from beneath a cloud and beats down on me too heavily.
The back porch, from the beginning, has been the secondary one. It is where we have a traditional picnic table and keep the Weber charcoal grill. It’s most pleasant at certain specific times of the day, enabling me to position myself so the sun is on my face, while Janet has access to a shady area further down the table. It’s quiet, save for the melodious tinkling of a pair of wind chimes, but it doesn’t afford us the amazing views and wildlife sightings that the front porch does.
The front porch is magical. There is a white-washed bench with a pretty floral cushion; four chairs complete with back and seat cushions; a nice-sized glass-topped dining table; a glass-topped coffee table that sits in front of the bench, and variously sized matching end tables. Around the perimeter of the porch are a few potted plants: deep burgundy begonias; nasturtiums sprouting their delicate, colored flowers; pink double impatiens; yellow-orange dahlias, and pungent Thai basil.
From my seat at the dining table, I can see my small vegetable and herb garden, which abuts the porch. Currently it is an explosion—a jungle—of growth. I am witness to the first tomatoes ripening and turning color on the vine. I have a perfect view of the herb plants spreading upwards and outwards. Sweet basil, lemon thyme, chives, rosemary, tarragon, flat-leaf parsley, spicy globe basil and dill all inform my daily cooking. There is nothing more disheartening to me than the demise of my herb garden in the fall. My food loses a spark of flavor I can’t replicate with dried herbs. I am bereft. But for now, the garden is bursting at the seams.
Janet sits across from me, and her view is an enviable one. I watch her as her face lights up with utter delight. She is in a state of constant discovery. Her chair faces an eclectic collection of birdhouses, feeders and a shallow bronze bird bath. Janet is the birder in the family, and though I’m enamored with the beauty, comings-and-goings, and the amazing show these feathered creatures put on, my sister knows them more intimately. Some will only eat suet. Others peck away at tiny sunflower seeds, expertly cracking them open to reveal the meat inside and dropping the shells below, where we have at least two inches of them padding the earth and discouraging any kind of plant growth. She knows which birds dismiss the hanging feeders and take to the ground for their nourishment. For those she sometimes sprinkles seeds or leftover bread on the railing of the porch. It’s gone in minutes.
So enraptured by the birds is Janet that I sometimes feel left out. Certainly, they get more attention than I do. “Oh, there’s a wren going into the house over there,” she’ll announce. “We have so many woodpeckers today.” “Oh, my god, I just saw the indigo bunting!” she’ll exclaim. “Look at how beautiful the red-breasted grosbeak is,” she’ll say, and I try to twist in my chair, but it’s always too late. It’s flown away.
Porch food can be anything. We often have breakfast there if the weather permits. Lunch is a given, usually with an umbrella open to keep Janet in the shade and allow me to soak up the sun. Perhaps our favorite porch meal is an Asian cellophane (glass) noodle salad, served at room temperature. The noodles are tossed with the tangy Vietnamese “vinaigrette” called nuac cham, along with a slaw of crisp, finely julienned vegetables, and a protein such as grilled or broiled chicken or pork—or tofu for a totally vegetarian take. It’s light, flavorful and utterly delicious. A chilled glass of white or rose wine or a cold beer is a perfect accompaniment to this unique meal.
The front porch is where we entertain guests. We like inclusive, small-group conversation and rarely have more than two or three friends over in the evening for drinks and nibbles. Janet brings up a boom box from the basement and plugs it into an outlet just under the porch. I pore through hundreds of CDs and choose a bunch of artists and groups that we and our friends grew up listening to: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, ‘70s soul music, Dionne Warwick, Cat Stevens, the Band.
Janet also plugs in the string of tiny blue Christmas lights strung across one porch railing, and we settle down to cocktails, food and talk for a couple of hours as the sky darkens and the night air becomes less oppressive after a long, hot, humid day.
The coffee tables on the porch are laid with cloth napkins, tiny individual cocktail forks, and colorful plates for the guests to balance on their laps. The food is always ample, so no one will have to go home afterwards and think about dinner.
For years we dreamed of a small screened-in covered porch. Unfortunately, we have no living relatives who might bestow an unexpected fortune on us were they to die. But who are we to complain? We have two porches and spend our summer days between them.
But the front porch will always be the best place in which to spend our time. In summer there really is no place I’d rather be.
Vietnamese Glass Noodle Salad
Serves 2 as a main course
Glass or cellophane noodles are also known as bean thread vermicelli. They are sold in tight white bundles and resemble wiry white knitting yarn.
This is the basic vegetarian version. I always add a protein, such as grilled or broiled boneless sliced chicken thigh, tenderloin of pork, skirt or hanger steak. Tofu would make a terrific addition for vegetarians.
Though it’s not traditional, I like to add a bit of sweet chili sauce and grated ginger to add a little zip to the nuac cham.
For nuac cham dressing:
Makes about 1/3 cup
Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and stir until salt and sugar dissolve.
For rice noodle salad:
Place the noodles in a shallow bowl and cover completely with boiling water. Let sit for about 4 minutes.
Using a large pair of scissors, slice the noodles in half. Drain and rinse under cold water. Drain again and pat dry. Place the noodles in a large bowl and drizzle with the sesame oil. Toss well and set aside, covered with cellophane wrap.
Peel the carrots and cut each into thirds. Slice the carrot thinly, then julienne each strip. Do the same with the bell pepper. The julienne should be quite fine.
Cut the cucumber into 2 or 3 pieces and stand each piece on end. Slice off a strip or two, turning the cucumber as you go and discarding the inner piece that contains seeds. Julienne each strip of cucumber.
Slice the cabbages as thinly as possible.
To assemble the dish, place a pile of glass noodles onto the bottom of two large shallow bowls. In sections, place a pile of carrots, then bell pepper, then cucumber and then cabbage on top of the noodles.
If you have prepared a protein, make a well in the middle of the noodles and vegetables, and pile the protein there.
Pour the nuac cham evenly over the two bowls. Scatter the herbs evenly over the salads. Place a pile of chopped peanuts in the center of each bowl. Serve immediately.
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