Cool City Cooking on Hot Days
There's a dilemma to summer cooking. Just as we have the most inspiring fresh ingredients, New York starts to sizzle and who wants to be in the kitchen? On steamy days I'm reluctant to make dinner and instead will buy things that need only a little stove-top cooking. Or yet another rotisserie chicken.
By the end of July my husband is approaching something called "chicken fatigue," a concept I learned many years ago in an economics class, not culinary school. I first heard the term in a case study that in an attempt to explain supply and demand, showed how we eat lots of chicken until we get sick of it and say "basta," causing beef prices to rise when we start buying ground meat and steaks. My summer kitchen is close to having chicken fatigue, due totally to my heat-resisting laziness.
Then there is the challenge of cooking for friends at the height of summer. Most of us don't have tree-shaded back yards or canvas-roofed terraces with propane-fueled grills. We've got small kitchens that quickly get over-heated causing our Con Ed bills to spike from air conditioners cranked up high. Still, I think it is always more pleasant to have meals with friends at home rather than a noisy and crowded restaurant. So what to do?
I've come up with a repertoire of summer meals that don't take huge amounts of time, make the most of the bounty of summer ingredients, and keep the oven off as much as possible. Summertime is generally more casual so leave the hors d'oeuvres simple and light, the wine chilled (perhaps a rosé), let guests serve themselves from big bowls and platters, and if you're not up for making a dessert of fruit crisp or your own ice cream, most will love a bowl of local berries, store-bought lemon sorbet and little bakery cookies.
A few of these dishes take a bit of effort, but I know that for many home cooks, spending time in the kitchen isn't a burden but a pleasure, especially if we're not sweating into our aprons.
- Bagna Cauda (an emulsion of olive oil, butter, garlic and anchovies) or simply a small bowl of very best extra virgin olive oil alongside a dish of sea salt and a pepper grinder, served with a platter of raw or slightly cooked vegetables -- barely tender asparagus, slices of raw fennel, peeled spears of kirby cucumbers, red and yellow pepper slices, carrots, cauliflower florets -- plus chunks of great bread to catch the drips.
- Vitello Tonnato is a classic Italian dish of veal loin or top round that's been poached to medium rare, cooled to room temperature, and sliced very thin, served with a sauce of mayonnaise (it's always best to make your own with organic eggs) mixed with oil-packed canned Italian tuna. Several of Marcella Hazan's cookbooks have great recipes. To the uninitiated it may sound like an odd combo, but the bland sweetness of the veal combined with the salty unctuousness of the sauce is a perfect balance, especially on a hot summer night. Serve with some asparagus and little boiled potatoes to capture any extra sauce.
- An Antipasto Platter made up of the best quality items bought at your favorite Italian market. Mine always has sliced salami (my favorite is called "Nostrano" made by Fra'Mani, a Berkeley, California producer who makes cured meats that are as good as any I've had from Italy or even in Italy. Available at Fairway and Grab in Park Slope) I'll also include roasted peppers, artichoke hearts, black olives, slices or wedges of summer tomatoes, prosciutto de parma, little bocconcini or else thick pieces of acutely fresh mozzarella, thin long slices of zucchini that I've quickly pan seared in a grill pan just enough to soften and leave grill marks, and if there are anchovy lovers among my guests, a few of the best quality I can find. I always include a loaf of crusty Pugliese, and a small pitcher of excellent olive oil. This platter can be a first course or, if generous enough and if served with a rich dessert like blueberry pie and ice cream, it's enough to be the whole meal.
- Salade Nicoise made with pan seared fresh tuna. See our recipe and suggestions for presenting this summer classic.
- Panzanella is a tomato salad combined with chunks of day-old bread. There are many recipes for this popular dish, best in the summer when tomatoes are their most flavorful. We have a recipe for "Naples Tomato Salad" to which you can simply add a heaping cup or so of 1-inch pieces of day-old bread to turn it into Panzanella.
- A Room Temperature Roast means at some point you have to have the oven on, but many meats, including beef, lamb and duck, are delicious at room temperature so you can be done cooking before your guests arrive. Serve with simple vegetables, pasta tossed with grated pecorino and ground pepper, or a couple of salads. Our recipe for "Lamb Roasted with Garlic and Anchovies" cooks in less than an hour.
- Spaghetti Con Vongole is made in minutes by steaming sweet clams in their shells (look for small, local littleneck clams) in olive oil, garlic and white wine. In the time it takes to cook a pound of De Cecco spaghettini to al dente, the clams will have opened and a flavorful broth formed. Toss together in a large serving bowl with a handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley and serve with a chilled pinot grigio, a loaf of ciabatta, a simple green salad and a plate of two or three favorite cheeses.
Finally, if you can't resist that rotisserie chicken, at least partner it with a platter of summer melon draped with prosciutto, or a plate of thick slices of New Jersey tomatoes and mozzarella scattered with Greenmarket basil leaves. The pleasure of summer flavors is sure to cure any lingering cases of chicken fatigue.