Depending on where you live, this summer has been either hot or ghastly. And maybe it still is. Ghastly, I mean.
Although it may seem that the rest of the world is on vacation, most of us are busy as usual. A friend who is under major work stress just wrote to me about how it's a "dream" to be able to have the leisure to cook something special.
His comment stayed with me as I spent some time with a new cookbook. Actually it's an old cookbook that's new to me, one by the late great Lee Bailey called Lee Bailey's Long Weekends. It's now out of print but can be found from some of the used booksellers at Amazon and B&N. Lee Bailey would often produce books that combined travelogue, style guide, and recipes and in this volume he called it "good food and easy living" for eight weekends set in beautiful settings across the country. While there's a certain indigenous character to the menus -- crab in South Carolina and chili rellenos in New Mexico -- what Lee Bailey did was use a place to inspire tempting multi-course meals that were not monsters to make.
So thinking of my over-worked friend in Boston who misses his kitchen, and inspired by Lee Bailey, I thought I'd offer up some summer menus. Whether it's a weekday dinner or cooking for company, here are some ideas for what to make.
First, a few tips for summer cooking:
- I'm an advocate for strategic compromises, like buying rotisserie chickens or good charcuterie, but cook at least one part of the meal yourself. The flavor and satisfaction of the meal will be much greater (as will be the value and nutrition) if you make your own vegetables, salads and desserts. And they'll taste much better (and be cheaper) if you don't buy them pre-cut, as tempting as that labor-saving option may be.
- My favorite way to entertain in the summer is to make big platters from which people can serve themselves. Our appetites can recede during hot weather and not everyone wants a big meal. Italian antipasto or salade Nicoise are two I've written about before but you could likewise fill a platter with cold roast chicken, a variety of potato salads, pan-cooked turkey sausage, or any vegetables that are at their peak -- let your farmer's market or CSA share decide this for you. The idea is to present all the elements of a meal and let people take what they want.
- You don't need to do much to great ingredients. This is why we love Italian cooking, of which it's been said, "it only has three ingredients and two of them are salt and water." Obviously this is an overstatement, but peak-of-summer watermelon, zucchini, melons, and tender beans taste best when you do little to them, giving home cooks both a prize and a break.
- Keep your kitchen cooler by cooking meats and fish on top of the stove or using the broiler instead of roasting. Pan seared skirt steaks, tilapia filets, and thin chicken breasts can be cooked in minutes and then flavored with salsas and flavored compound butters.
- For summer desserts, if you can master a cobbler dough, a corn meal crust, or a basic pâte brisée dough, you can quickly turn any ripe fruit into an Italian plum cobbler, a blackberry and nectarine tart, or an apricot galette. Add from a pint of vanilla ice cream kept in the freezer and you will create everyone's favorite summer eating memory. See our recipes.
Menu #1: Inspired by a Lee Bailey early evening picnic in the Berkshires from Lee Bailey's Long Weekends
- Grilled chicken breasts with salsa (buy a good jarred salsa or make your own with fresh peaches)
- Chopped summer salad and pita bread
- A bowl of yellow and red cherry tomatoes
- Brownies with store-bought coffee ice cream or if you have the time and ambition, make your own berry sorbet
Menu #2: For a weeknight dinner
- Tomato and Watermelon Salad. See our recipe.
- Broiled swordfish or halibut steaks
- Asian coleslaw, one of my all-time favorites, adapted from Fish Without A Doubt by Rick Moonen and Roy Finamore (see below)
- Sliced melon served with lime wedges
Asian Coleslaw (serves 4)
1 pound cabbage, cored and shredded and 1 cup grated carrots -- or buy a bag of coleslaw mix
1/3 cup canola oil
1/3 cup fish sauce
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon finely minced garlic
1 teaspoon jalapeno or Thai chile pepper
Put the shredded cabbage and grated carrots into a bowl. Mix all the other ingredients together in a jar and shake until emulsified. Toss the slaw mix with the dressing, starting with about 1/4 cup and adding more a tablespoon at a time until coated. Cover and chill for about 30 minutes before serving. Any leftover vinaigrette will last refrigerated for about 2 weeks.
Menu #3: A summer weekend dinner
- Melon balls wrapped in Serrano ham
- Gazpacho (despite all the fancy versions out there, I still love the recipe in The Silver Palate Cookbook because it's chunky and tastes like a tomato salad soup)
- A loaf of good bread and a wedge of Manchego Spanish sheep's milk cheese
- Seafood Paella (See below for a paella primer from Fine Cooking magazine)
- Peach cobbler, from The City Cook: Big City, Small Kitchen. Limitless Ingredients, No Time. (see below)
Maryland Peach Cobbler (serves 6)
1 teaspoon unsalted butter for the baking dish
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
6 to 8 large peaches, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch slices (6 cups)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold
1/3 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 large egg, beaten
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons milk
Preheat oven to 350° F.
Butter a 9-inch round or square cake pan or baking dish about 2 inches deep.
In a large bowl, combine 2 tablespoons sugar, 2 tablespoons flour, and the cinnamon. Add the peaches and stir to coat.
Transfer the peaches to the buttered pan and dot with the 2 tablespoons cold butter.
In another large bowl, either by hand or using a handheld mixer, cream the 1/3 cup softened butter until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.
Add the egg and blend.
Sift 1-cup flour with the remaining 1/3 cup sugar, the baking powder, and salt. Stir the dry ingredients into the butter mixture, alternating with the milk. Do not overmix.
Using a spatula, spread the batter over the peaches as evenly as possible so it covers the fruit.
Bake until the fruit is bubbly and the topping is golden brown, about 30 minutes.
Serve while still warm with vanilla ice cream.
Menu #4: Easy summer supper
- Cold poached salmon with a sauce made by adding grated onion, snips of fresh chives, and a little fresh lemon juice to sour cream (low fat works well)
- Sliced local tomatoes, either heirloom or our best New Jerseys with cracked black pepper
- Quinoa or couscous with summer vegetables and herbs -- choose from what is best that day (see our recipe)
- Store-bought pound cake and strawberries
No one wants to cook at the end of a steamy August day and it can be tempting to dial in for sushi. But you can do that any time, like on a rainy night in November. Instead remember that we only get one shot a year at summer's best tastes -- and that's right now.