Summer is rapidly approaching, and with it the promise of long lazy days spent on the gulf coast's sugar sand beaches. But in Tampa Bay, you don't have to wait until June. Take advantage of the fine weather right now and get to the gulf.
To me, no beach day is complete without a great book and a cooler full of delectable snacks. If you're headed to the shore but have no idea what to bring, have no fear. We've rounded up our four favorite beach reads — some old, some new — and paired them with seaside-friendly snacks, so all you have to worry about is which swimsuit to wear. Whether you're in the mood for a paranormal fantasy or a collection of humorous essays, we've got you covered. (SEE RECIPES BELOW.)
The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater
This four-part paranormal fantasy series will transport you to mysterious places.
If I could only bring one book to the beach, it would be one of the books in the Raven Cycle. Filled with wry humor, rich characterization and bizarre plot twists, these novels are the ultimate escapist beach reads.
When Blue Sargent kisses her true love, he will die. At least, that's what her psychic mother has told her for years. Blue has never paid much attention — until she meets the wealthy, eccentric Gansey and his band of private school "Raven Boys." Together, they embark on a quest to wake an ancient Welsh king and claim their reward. Jump in Gansey's beloved orange Camaro and follow the teens as they explore sentient woods, defy prophesies and discover things about themselves and their world that will leave them forever changed.
The last book in the series, The Raven King, is being released at the end of April, so you won't have to wait long for the finale.
What to eat: When the teenage characters aren't searching for ancient Welsh kings or failing their Latin homework, they meet at a local restaurant to bond over sweet tea and pizza. Pack a thermos of lemon-blueberry sweet tea and an abundance of pizza-flavored popcorn.
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
When summer arrives, do you ever get the urge to throw your clothes in a suitcase and buy a ticket to some exotic place? If you're like me, that means taking day trips to the shore rather than globetrotting, and that's where Elizabeth Gilbert comes in. Pack a copy of Eat, Pray, Love and you can tour Italy, India and Bali — without ever leaving your beach towel. Gilbert's memoir will have you savoring the double mozzarella goodness of Neapolitan pizza, meditating in an Indian ashram and basking on the white shores of tropical Bali.
What to eat To further immerse yourself in your imaginary vacation, fill your picnic cooler with a dish from each country: a mozzarella and prosciutto rollup for Italy, curried shrimp for India and fruit sushi for Bali. (Optional: You can make the fruit sushi more authentically Indonesian by using tropical fruits like mangoes.)
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
Looking for a more suspenseful read? Pack your cooler with decadent lobster sandwiches and spend your summer on a private island with the Sinclair family.
"This island is ours. Here, in some way, we are young forever," 17-year-old Cady Sinclair tells us, in her dreamlike, evocative prose in We Were Liars. But it's not as idyllic as she makes it sound.
In this book, Cady has just returned to the family island after a mysterious accident two summers ago. She suffers amnesia and excruciating headaches, but the wealthy Sinclairs are all about keeping up appearances. As she drinks fizzy lemonade and swims in the ocean with her three best friends, she struggles to remember the tragedy that nobody wants to discuss.
Bring plenty of sunscreen, because you won't want to leave the beach until you've reached the book's shocking twist ending. It's a fast, easy read, but be warned: This suspense is far from light.
What to eat: A Sinclair-inspired lunch wouldn't be the same without lobster. Pair a lobster sandwich, topped with bacon, lettuce and avocado, with a fresh tomato salad. Serve Cady's favorite berry pies for dessert, and imagine this beach is your own private island.
Although, as the book progresses, you might be glad there are other beachgoers around you after all ...
Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling
When you pack Why Not Me? in your beach bag, you've basically invited Mindy Kaling to join you on a sunbathing excursion. As you lather on your coconut-scented sunscreen, she'll whisper tantalizing secrets about kissing her co-stars and make you laugh out loud over her brief stint as a sorority girl. Kaling's warm style makes you feel like you've brought a friend, not a book. Her essays range from the amusing "Things to Bring to My Dinner Party" (she requests an old photo of Colin Firth and a bottle of hot sauce, among other things) to the poignant "Soup Snakes," which made me root for her and B.J. Novak to get married and live happily ever after. It's the perfect, light-hearted beach read — but don't dismiss it as mere comedy. There are moments of piercing social commentary and even heartbreaking revelations.
What to eat: Bring along tequila-soaked watermelon wedges, just as sweet and refreshing as this book — with a bit of a kick. Alternatively, pack a bag full of pink and red Starbursts — her favorite kind — and a package of Kaling-approved Sour Punch Straws. For something more substantial, pack your cooler with cucumber sandwiches. "I love cucumber," Kaling says on her Tumblr, The Concerns of Mindy Kaling. "It wins the prize of Single Easiest Vegetable to Deal With, doesn't it? So easy to slice and prepare." Layered with a spread of jalapeno, mint, cilantro and lime, it's a refreshing take on the traditional British tea sandwich. I'm sure if Kaling knew what you were bringing in your cooler, she'd show up for real at your beach day.
THE RAVEN CYCLE
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
¼ cup sun-dried tomatoes in oil, drained well
1 clove garlic, smashed
⅓ cup popcorn kernels
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
¾ teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon kosher salt
In a food processor, puree the butter, tomatoes and garlic until it forms a smooth paste. Heat a small saute pan over medium heat and add the butter mixture. Heat the butter until melted down and fragrant, about 3 minutes. Turn off heat but keep warm.
Heat a large saucepan over high heat. Once hot, add the popcorn kernels and oil and shake the pan to coat the kernels in the oil. Cover and continue to cook over high heat until the kernels begin to pop. Shake the pan once again and reduce the heat to medium-high. Continue to cook until the popping slows dramatically, 1 to 2 minutes. Pour the popped popcorn into a large bowl. While still warm, add the flavored butter, cheese, oregano and salt. Toss to coat, then serve.
Source: Giada De Laurentiis
Lemon-Blueberry Sweet Tea
1 (12-ounce) package frozen blueberries
½ cup fresh lemon juice
3 family-size tea bags
¾ cup sugar
Garnishes: fresh blueberries, lemon rind strips
Bring blueberries and lemon juice to a boil in a large saucepan over medium heat; cook, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes. Remove from heat; pour through a wire-mesh strainer into a bowl, using back of a spoon to squeeze out juice. Discard solids. Rinse saucepan clean.
Bring 4 cups water to a boil in same saucepan; add 3 tea bags and let stand 5 minutes. Discard tea bags. Stir in sugar and blueberry juice mixture. Pour into a pitcher; cover and chill 1 hour. Serve over ice. Garnish, if desired.
Makes 5 cups.
Source: Southern Living
EAT, PRAY, LOVE
Mozzarella and Prosciutto Roll
1 (2-inch-thick) slice fresh mozzarella
6 to 8 slices prosciutto, thinly sliced
3 fresh basil leaves, as needed
Place the fresh mozzarella, homemade or store bought, on a flat surface. Using a rolling pin, roll it out into a smooth flat piece, about ½ inch thick. Place the prosciutto and basil on top of the mozzarella and season with black pepper. Roll the mozzarella into a log, then slice into 8 servings.
Source: Paula Deen
Grilled Shrimp Skewers
Spice-shelf basics blended with lime juice and ginger form an easy Indian-inspired marinade for shrimp.
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice (from 3 limes), plus wedges for serving
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon curry powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons finely chopped peeled fresh ginger (from one 1-inch piece)
2 scallions, white and pale-green parts only, chopped
2 small garlic cloves
1 ¼ teaspoons coarse salt
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
20 large shrimp
Blend lime juice, curry powder, cumin, sugar, ginger, scallions, garlic and 1 ¼ teaspoons salt in a blender or a food processor. With machine running, add oil in a slow, steady stream to form a paste.
Cut shrimp along back (through shells) using kitchen scissors, and devein. Loosen shells from flesh using your fingers, keeping shells attached. Gently open each shell, and push some curry paste underneath to coat backs; put shells back in place. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
Soak 4 wooden skewers in water for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, heat grill to medium-high. Let shrimp stand at room temperature for 15 minutes. Thread 5 shrimp onto each skewer. Grill until shells are charred on one side, about 3 ½ minutes. Flip and cook until opaque, about 2 ½ minutes more.
Serves 4 as an appetizer.
Source: Martha Stewart Living
Cold Fruit Sushi with Honey Dipping Sauce
Spare, cool melon and pineapple prepared sushi-style is a refreshing component to your beach picnic.
1 small honeydew melon
1 small cantaloupe
1 small pineapple
2 tablespoons honey
Place the fruit on a cutting board lined with parchment. Trim the tops and bottoms of the melons and pineapple and sit them upright on the cutting board. Using a very sharp knife, cut away the rind, slicing lengthwise and working your way around the fruit. Cut about 24 very thin slices of melon in the same fashion, slicing from top to bottom, allowing the juices to collect on the parchment paper.
Slice the pineapple lengthwise into ⅛-inch slices. Pile and cut into matchsticks.
Pour the juices that have collected into a small bowl. Stir in the honey and set aside.
To assemble the fruit sushi, lay the melon slices vertically on the cutting board. Place 3 pineapple matchsticks horizontally at the base of the melon slice and roll. Trim the base so that the rolls sit firmly on a dessert plate. Serve with the honey dipping sauce.
Source: Martha Stewart Living
WE WERE LIARS
The Ultimate Lobster, Bacon, Lettuce, Avocado and Tomato Sandwiches
2 ripe tomatoes
2 pounds cooked lobster
2 to 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 teaspoons fresh juice from 1 lemon
2 tablespoons finely sliced chives
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound thick-cut bacon
2 small loaves ciabatta, split in half horizontally
1 avocado, thinly sliced
4 iceberg lettuce leaves, crisp white/pale yellow parts only
For the tomatoes: Bring a large pot of water that can fit a steamer attachment to a boil. Cut a small X in the bottom of each tomato. Place tomatoes in water and cook for 30 seconds, then immediately transfer to a bowl of cold water. Set aside. Pour off all but 1 inch of water from Dutch oven and add steamer insert. Cover and keep hot.
For the lobster: Roughly chop, then transfer to a large bowl. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons mayonnaise (to taste), lemon juice and chives. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep lobster salad refrigerated until ready to use.
For the bacon: Lay bacon slices on a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet, allowing each slice to overlap slightly lengthwise to form a solid sheet of bacon. Transfer to oven and cook until crisp, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool slightly. Preheat broiler to high.
While bacon cooks, peel tomatoes (the skins should slip off). Split each tomato into quarters, then, using a sharp chef's knife, remove the inner flesh and seeds to form 8 tomato fillets. Set aside.
Transfer bacon sheet to a cutting board, reserving fat separate. Cut bacon sheet into large pieces that just fit the bread. Set aside.
Spread cut surface of each piece of bread with 1 teaspoon rendered bacon fat. Broil cut side up until well-browned.
To assemble: Spread mayonnaise to taste on each bottom bread half. Arrange avocado slices on top. Arrange bacon sheet on top of avocado. Add tomato fillets. Spread mayonnaise to taste on the top of each bread half. Add lettuce leaves. Press lobster salad into lettuce leaves, compressing bread slightly. Close sandwiches. Cut in half and serve.
Makes 2 large sandwiches, serving 2 or 4.
Source: J. Kenji López-Alt, Serious Eats
2 pounds chopped tomatoes
1 pound cubed mozzarella
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped basil
⅓ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper
Toss all ingredients together in a bowl. Serve.
Source: Food Network
Mini Berry Pies
Baked in single-serve ramekins, these desserts are small, but the blueberry and raspberry flavors inside are big. You can use any kind of cutout you have on hand. Be sure to pack napkins and a spoon to eat these pies.
1 (15-ounce) package refrigerated pie crust
6 ounces raspberries
12 ounces blueberries
4 teaspoons cornstarch
¼ cup sugar, plus more for sprinkling
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 large egg
Unfold pie crust on work surface. Using top of a 3-inch aluminum pie tin as a template, add ¼ inch all around and use a knife to cut out 7 rounds. Make a vent in center of each round with a ½-inch heart-shaped cutter (or any kind of cutter you have). Set crusts aside.
Stir together berries, cornstarch, sugar and lemon juice in a medium bowl. Divide mixture among 7 (3-inch) aluminum pie tins, or ovenproof ramekins or glass bowls (like Pyrex). Top each with a crust; use fingers to crimp sides so they stop just before edge of tin. Beat egg with 1 teaspoon water. Brush crusts lightly with egg wash and sprinkle with sugar. Freeze pies for 20 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bake until golden and juices are bubbling, about 25 minutes. Let cool completely on a wire rack.
Source: Martha Stewart
WHY NOT ME?
Tequila-Soaked Watermelon Wedges
This grownup fruit dessert borrows flavors from margaritas. Tequila and triple sec infuse the watermelon slices, which also get a spray of lime juice and a sprinkling of coarse salt. The longer the watermelon soaks, the more flavorful it becomes.
1 small seedless watermelon, red or yellow, quartered and cut into 1-inch-thick wedges
1 cup sugar
¾ cup water
½ cup tequila
¼ cup triple sec
2 limes, halved or cut into wedges
Flaked sea salt or coarse salt
Arrange watermelon in a single layer in two 9- by 13-inch baking dishes. Bring sugar, water, tequila and triple sec to a boil in a small saucepan. Cook, stirring, until sugar dissolves, about 1 minute. Let cool slightly. Pour syrup over watermelon wedges and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes.
Remove watermelon from syrup and arrange on a platter. Squeeze limes over melon and season with salt.
Source: Martha Stewart Living
1 cup packed fresh cilantro leaves
½ cup packed fresh mint leaves
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 fresh jalapeno chile pepper, quartered and seeded, if desired
1 clove garlic, quartered
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
4 slices whole wheat or white bread
2 tablespoons butter, softened
4 (1-ounce) slices provolone cheese
½ of a medium cucumber, thinly sliced (1 cup)
In a food processor, combine cilantro, mint, lime juice, jalapeno pepper and garlic. Cover and process until finely chopped. (If you do not have a food processor, finely chop the herbs, jalapeno and garlic; combine with the lime juice.) Stir in Parmesan cheese.
If desired, remove crusts from bread. Spread one side of each bread slice with softened butter. Top 2 of the bread slices with 1 slice of cheese each. Top with all of the cucumber slices. Carefully top with all of the cilantro mixture, remaining cheese slices and remaining bread slices, buttered side down. Cut sandwiches in half. Serve immediately or wrap in plastic wrap and pack with an ice pack or chill up to 4 hours before serving.
Makes 2 sandwiches.