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:
- Garlic scape pesto that I've served with boiled shrimp and also plain, boiled potatoes.
- Tuna belly quick-sautéed in a little butter in a skillet. Tuna belly is hard to find but it's usually available in New York at The Lobster Place in Chelsea Market. It's not cheap.
- Green or yellow beans cooked until tender and tossed with little slices of sautéed chorizo, cooked just until the surface crisps and the pan becomes oily.
- Baby beets, roasted or boiled until tender, then served at room temperature tossed with a red wine and mustard vinaigrette and crumbled feta cheese.
- Apricot and blackberry tart in a cornmeal crust. I make it just like our recipe for Plum Tart except I substitute sliced apricots and fresh berries for the plums.
- Local strawberries sliced and tossed with a tiny bit of sugar and served with a wedge of Chavrie goat cheese.
- Chinese BBQ'd pork -- one of my all-time favorite recipes from America's Test Kitchen -- served with steamed spinach and jasmine rice. See our recipe.
- Salade Niçoise made with pan-grilled fresh tuna.
- Potato salad. I've published my current favorite, from the fabulous cookbook, Staff Meals from Chanterelle, My thanks to a City Cook reader who wrote to me and shared that this was her favorite go-to cookbook for cooking for her family because it has since become one of mine, too. The book is now out-of-print but used copies are easy to find, including at Amazon.
- Broiled boneless, skinless chicken thighs. You can use almost any marinade but the cooking method is easy. And if you're a city cook with a grill, use that instead of your broiler.
- Shrimp fra diavalo on pasta. Use your favorite tomato sauce -- home cooked or jarred -- adding a pinch of red pepper to give the sauce heat. Bring to a simmer and add shelled, cleaned shrimp and simmer until the shrimp is opaque. Serve over your favorite pasta.
- Broiled fish -- halibut steaks, salmon steaks, swordfish, tuna.
- Farro salad with chopped, raw vegetables like red pepper, scallion, halved cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and feta cheese. I always make extra and use it just-made for dinner and then for lunch the next day.
- Sautéed steak tips (this cut is hard to find in NYC so I bought a skirt steak at Whole Foods and cut it into large chunks that I cooked in a skillet with a little olive oil until the meat was medium rare) served with separately sautéed mushrooms and topped both with a crumble of blue cheese; served also with cherry tomatoes I cut in half and tossed with a little olive oil, a pinch of salt, and chopped chives, plus a plain green salad.
- Fresh vegetables -- blanched, steamed or roasted -- cooled to room temperature and served with garlicky aioli, which is also great on pieces of leftover cooked fish.
- And something I haven't yet had but once they're in season, which should be in a couple of weeks if our weather stays hot, will be bowls of sliced, juicy -- and scrumptious -- New Jersey peaches mixed with fresh raspberries, served with store-bought shortbread cookies.
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.