Hot Fun In The Summertime

Hot Fun In The Summertime

The other day I heard someone describe something they ate as scrumptious. Whatever it was they were referring to, I wanted some. Scrumptious means irresistible and satisfying and probably also a little bit wicked. A lick of homemade vanilla ice cream. The crisp, slightly salted, oily surface of perfectly fried chicken that shatters off at the first bite. A cold vodka tonic made with Schweppes and lots of lime. Just-picked baby peas with a knob of French butter. Peach pie.

For me, scrumptious is not the same as delicious. Scrumptious has to do with pleasure; delicious has to do with taste. A number of years ago I took a writing class with Alan Richman, the irascible food writer whose taste is pitch perfect and whose prose has won a pile of James Beard Awards. He taught as he wrote and as he judges food -- without pandering and without much tolerance for anything that wasn't great. It's not surprising that much of what I remember from his class has to do with feeling inadequate. Still, I left his class a much better writer. One lesson was how no good food writer ever uses the word delicious. It's imprecise, he said, and thus has no meaning since what is delicious to you may not be to me. The writer's job is instead to describe the food, the flavor, the aroma, its saltiness-heat-sweetness, enough so that the reader can decide for herself if she'd like it.

I think of scrumptious as a hot weather word because food satisfies us differently in the summer. Maybe it's because our heat-diminished appetites can use some inspiration. While we're still hungry, we need a more intense eating experience and clearer flavors. More spice. More cold. More crisp. As I write this, the thermometer on my computer says it's 94 degrees outside and so it's no wonder I have little interest in cooking. But nature does us all a favor by giving us during the hottest weather of the year the best ingredients, ones that need little done to them to make them scrumptious.

Hot Weather Cooking

New York and many other places have already had blistering heat, and it's only mid-June. Obviously there are ways to keep the temperature down in our city kitchens -- use the microwave, put slightly ajar lids on pots of boiling water to manage the steam, do more stove-top and broiler cooking and less roasting. Eat things raw.

Here are some things I've made in the past few weeks and expect to repeat before summer is over:

Missing Nora

I met Nora Ephron once, which is not to say I knew her. The circumstances of my meeting her don't really matter, but it was enough for me to have her sign my paperback copy of her novel -- or as I liked to think of it, her true crime book -- Heartburn. I keep it among my cookbooks, both for its recipes, as well as for knowing that she, with such a full and demanding and creative life, always cooked and always loved food.

Many of you probably did as I when I heard the news that she was gone. I gasped. And then I was very sad. I pulled down my faded copy of Heartburn, and it fell open to page 128 where her recipe for Linguine alla Cecca was written. I've made this so often -- every summer as soon as New Jersey tomatoes arrive -- I had forgotten I learned it from her:

It's a hot pasta with a cold tomato and basil sauce, and it's so light and delicate that it's almost like eating a salad. It has to be made in the summer, when tomatoes are fresh. Drop 5 large tomatoes into boiling water for one full minute. Peel and seed and chop. Put into a large bowl with 1/2 cup olive oil, a garlic clove sliced in two, 1 cup chopped fresh basil leaves, salt and hot red pepper flakes. Let sit for a couple of hours, then remove the garlic. Boil one pound of linguine, drain and toss with the cold tomato mixture. Serve immediately.

I turned to the book's first pages where along with Nora's inscription to me, she had drawn a little frying pan with a heart hovering above. It was exactly how I felt.



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