On our hottest days, making something that's stereotypically summer, like a pasta salad, means putting a pot of water on the stove to boil and on some days, that is unbearable. Happily, there are some wonderful, easy and appealing no-cook dishes:
- Prosciutto with slices of sweet melon
- Ceviche -- scallops or fish "cooked" with lime juice
- Panzanella, which is also a great way to use up stale bread
- Chilled Cucumber Soup
- Rotisserie Chicken (let someone else do the cooking!)
- And salads, salads, salads
There's also gazpacho, a summer favorite. You'll need the help of a Spanish chef to take you through all the different ways to make gazpacho -- some are without tomatoes and made with finely-ground almonds as the main ingredient. But my favorite gazpacho tastes like a salad soup, with mostly tomatoes and a little vinegar for snap and eggs to give it body. We've just published a new recipe that is best eaten well chilled and in a big bowl with a piece of excellent bread. A peeled ripe peach for dessert and you'll have a perfect meal for one of late summer's scalding days.
But if we only eat non-cooked food during these late summer days we will miss out on the calendar's prize: summer vegetables. The best thing about cooking with summer vegetables is that they are best made with little gloss and little fuss. So if you don't mind suffering a little time with the stovetop turned on (but no oven!), you'll be rewarded with the best flavors of the year. A few tips:
- Buy local. I know I hammer this point all the time, but in addition to giving our nearby farmers our support, there's also a taste reason: the shorter the distances these vegetables travel the better the flavor. Remember that from the time something is yanked from the ground or plucked from a vine or tree branch, its flavor will begin to diminish. So try to shop at your farmers' market or Greenmarket. And don't overlook the markets that are near work. For example, in midtown Manhattan there's a Greenmarket at Rockefeller Center, at Fifth Avenue and between 48th and 50th Streets, every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. If you're a commuter, there's an indoor weekly market every Thursday at the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
- Don't buy too far in advance. You'll get better flavor if that head of lettuce doesn't spend a week in your refrigerator. It's another reason to know where your best markets and grocers are so you can buy today for tonight's dinner.
- Choose each vegetable as if it's a precious jewel. Pick it up and look to see that there isn't any spoilage. Onions should be firm. Fennel should be fragrant and its lacy fonds bright green. Select smaller zucchini and summer squash than large because the flesh will be firmer and the seeds smaller. Yellow and red peppers will be sweeter than the green. Being gnarly doesn't change the taste of a tomato; bruises will. Choose garlic bulbs that are tight and hard. But handle everything gently because your fingers can do damage. And please don't squeeze the peaches -- merely holding one in your hand will tell you if it's ripe (try not to leave behind your thumbprint).
- Select with your hands, your eyes and your nose. Fresh fruit is fragrant so bring a melon or a peach to your nose before you choose. Healthy vegetables have bright colors, like the deep green and red-veined leaves of Swiss chard.
- You don't have to tart something up to get its best flavor. In fact the opposite is true. Choose vegetables that you love and cook them simply. Use a light hand with fats. Don't add too many different herbs or spices. Salt conservatively.
We've added some new recipes at The City Cook to make this last point. Pan-wilted julienne of zucchini, steamed little potatoes with good butter and fresh dill, and broccoli with garlic.
As for this end-of-August heat wave that's settled here in New York City, it's enough to make any city cook reach for a take-out menu. But I'm resisting. Tonight it's a Naples Tomato Salad and room temperature slices of a quickly seared duck breast. And a tall glass of something cold enough to leave a wet, drippy ring on the table.