The August City Kitchen
July is statistically the hottest month of the year, which gives me hope that by August 1st, the worst of summer is behind us. Then again, I am an optimist who likes to hedge her bets. So I'm looking ahead to cooking for the rest of August with the assumption that this steamy summer still has a ways to go.
For me the worst of trying to cook during such hot weather is not finding low-steam and low-heat recipes but instead having the motivation to even go into the kitchen for anything but ice. These are the days when the thought of cooking dinner makes me whiny and feeling put upon and yet if I give in too often to the ease of take-out food, I know I will regret it. The alternative has been to make the same things over and over again because at a certain point, the monotony is almost like not cooking at all.
This strategy seemed to work until the end of July when all of a sudden my local Greenmarket abruptly changed from pastels to primary colors. Especially the color red when you see the first field tomatoes at the market. These won't be the best tomatoes of the summer, but as is often the case with a lot in life, what comes first can seem particularly winning. Fortunately when it comes to tomatoes, unlike choosing things like mates or real estate, there will be no regrets if a better one comes along three weeks later.
Every summer I write about what to do with the bounty of summer tomatoes but knowing how much most of us love them, especially our New Jersey beefsteaks that have big flavor and perfect acidity, I am encouraged to repeat ideas for what to do with them. Here are some of my favorites:
- Watermelon and tomato salad, an unexpected combination of sweet and salty that uses two primary ingredients when they're at their best flavor and lowest price. See our recipe.
- Green beans with warm tomato vinaigrette, see the recipe from the great Lee Bailey.
- Fresh tomato salsa. Even a store-bought rotisserie chicken or cold cooked shrimp becomes transformed with a spoonful of this bright, heated raw sauce. See our recipe.
- Panzanella, the Italian bread salad that can only be made with the best of summer's tomatoes. See our recipe.
- Gazpacho. There are scores of recipes for this Spanish cold soup but we found one from Fine Cooking magazine is very traditional. Make it smooth or chunky. See our link.
This is also the time to make some simple favorites that will go from ordinary to wonderful, simply by using the best local tomatoes you can find. These include BLTs; salads made with tomato wedges and lump crabmeat or cooked cold shrimp; tomato aspic which is a southern classic; Caprese salad with thick chunks of milky fresh mozzarella and basil and a drizzle of olive oil; or tomato sandwiches made with good white bread (choose a Pullman loaf if it's available but slice it yourself so you can get thicker slices than what the bakery's machine will produce), a smear of Hellman's, and a sprinkle of freshly ground black pepper.
A summer hors d'oeuvre that is a perennial favorite are bruschettas with diced fresh tomato and fresh basil. It's simple to make but please don't bother if you don't plan on using the best possible ingredients because if anything has a faded flavor, so will the entire bruschetta.
4 fresh in-season and perfectly ripe tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, peeled and grated (I use a microplane)
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
8 1-inch thick slices good Italian bread, grilled or toasted; ciabatta is a perfect choice
2 tablespoons fresh basil leaves cut into chiffonade (fine, thin slices)
- Quarter the tomatoes but do not peel them unless the skin is very thick. Remove the cores and the tomatoes interiors, including the juice and seeds (these can be strained and the juices saved and chilled for drinking or to add to a sauce). Cut the remaining pieces of tomato flesh into tiny dice. You can do this in the food processor but be very careful because the tomato can go from rough chop to juice in a nano-second. Place the finely chopped tomato in a medium bowl.
- Grate the garlic into the tomatoes and add the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, a generous pinch of salt, and several grinds of black pepper. Stir to combine.
- Spoon the tomato mixture onto the grilled bread slices. Sprinkle with basil.
- Serve immediately.
If you don't want a strong garlic flavor, omit the garlic from the tomato mixture but rub the surface of the grilled bread with a cut piece of garlic to just give a hint of the flavor.
August is a month when you might be making relaxed summer dinners for friends. If outdoor cooking or eating is not an option (it's not for me, either), there are some easy meals you can make that either won't over-heat the kitchen or else can be made earlier in the day, giving your apartment time to cool down.
- Starters can include cold soups, as the gazpacho or ones made with sorrel, fruit, cold borscht, or vichyssoise. Make them in advance so that they have a chance to become really cold. For a meal that will have a lighter main course, a more substantial first course is a good choice. Something like tuna tartare, or crab cakes, or slices of smoked duck breast and local peaches on baby lettuce or arugula.
- Main courses can be cold poached salmon (made ahead and chilled) with a dill sauce or herb mayonnaise, cold roasted chicken (make your own or buy a rotisserie cooked one from your market or butcher); lobster salad which still tastes like luxury even though this summer's bountiful harvest has meant very low prices; flank steak cooked rare and sliced to be served at room temperature with a mustard or horseradish sauce.
- Sides can include savory tarts made with paper-thin slices of zucchini and dabs of goat cheese or caramelized onions in a Provençal pissaladiere, room temperature cooked vegetables such as green beans or broccoli rabe, and pickled beets or green tomatoes.
- Salads seem to always take the longest time to assemble but their satisfying freshness is perfect for summer eating. Remember to dress them just before serving because any salt in the dressing will cause the vegetables to throw off moisture and your salad will go from crisp to limp in minutes.
- Desserts in the summer to me should always be fruit. Either a simple bowl of cherries, or strawberries to be dipped in sour cream and then a dab of brown sugar, sliced peaches slicked with a little heavy cream, or one of the homey fruit desserts we love -- whether you call them crumbles, crisps, kuchens, cobblers, buckles, or pandowdies. Or better yet -- pie.
How To Boil A Potato
I particularly love potato salads, both the French non-mayonnaise kind made with mustard vinaigrette that Julia Child introduced to us, as well as the southern style, with mayo, like this one that is my current favorite . But whenever I cooked potatoes for salads or anything else but to mash them (when it didn't much matter), I often ended up with ones that were falling apart long before I could take a knife to them. But recently I bought a used copy of Staff Meals from Chanterelle, by David Waltuck (published in 2000), and included among the many wonderful recipes are tips for buying ingredients, storing them, and small things that make a big difference, including his favorite way to cook potatoes. I haven't had a wrecked boiled potato since adopting his method.
This is what he advises:
- Use whole unpeeled potatoes. Never cut them into smaller pieces because this lets the potatoes absorb too much water, making them tasteless and mealy.
- Place unpeeled potatoes in a pot with lots of cold, salted water. I try to use ones of about equal size so that they all cook in the same amount of time.
- Bring to a boil over high heat. Partially cover the pot and reduce heat to medium low so that they continue to cook at a very gentle boil until tender. This will take about 30 minutes, depending on the size of the potato. Test with a fork or paring knife -- the potato should be pierced easily but not fall apart.
- Drain in a colander. When cool enough to handle, remove the peels and cut into the desired size.
Note: This method is good for salads and other assembled dishes. But if you're making mashed potatoes you should peel the potatoes before cooking because you'll need to mash them while still hot (this is also when you add butter and warm milk) and if you wait long enough so that you can peel them, they'll be too cool.
- One of the tolls of the weather this year has been taken by the sour cherry crop. It seems that temperatures and storms in the spring decimated most of the sour cherries that were expected to be in our markets this summer. Up to 70% of the crop was destroyed. If like me, you love to use fresh sour cherries for pies, or had planned to can some for serving with duck or pork in the winter, this is not our year.
- More weather bad news is that because of the drought across the country, and especially in our breadbasket Midwest states, food prices are going to take a hit. No matter where you live, the supply of wheat and corn crops that end up in many of our foods, is simply a lot less than in years past. So if you love to use a catsup glaze on your turkey meatloaf, expect to see your bottle of Heinz, which includes corn syrup, soon cost more.
- For the fun of the doing, and the reward of enjoying local food all year round, maybe this is the year that you try canning for the first time. Canning doesn't always save you money -- a quart of canned peaches won't be much cheaper than a 16 oz. bag of frozen ones -- but it does always capture fresh food when it's at its best flavor, cost, and nutrition. It's a perfect way to use up any CSA excesses, plus you'll know exactly what's in your food. If you're a newbie, start with canning tomatoes. The price of entry isn't high -- you'll need a big pot, some glass jars and lids, a couple of tools that make it safer to handle glass jars and boiling water, some clean and dry kitchen towels, and a weekend afternoon when you're prepared to steam up your kitchen.
The satisfaction you'll feel next February on a frigid day when you pour a pint of Greenmarket tomatoes into your favorite recipe for minestrone is everything you want home cooking to be. See our article to help get you started. Plus listen to our podcast we did two summers ago with author and city canner, Eugenia Bone. You won't find a better teacher.