Staying completely out of the kitchen during the hot days of summer is not the best idea, because it’s where the refrigerator and freezer are. But when it comes to meal preparation, the less time spent there, the better.
A little bit of planning ahead can make a big difference in creating no-sweat lunch and dinner dishes. Having some key ingredients on hand and taking advantage of all the fresh, locally grown/made edibles also helps.
When it comes to food, “light” often refers to reduced calories, but for summer meals, “light” has more to do with digestion. Light foods are those that don’t weigh you down, make you feel uncomfortably full or make you feel sleepy.
If you are including meat, plan on serving it as part of a salad, or very thinly sliced — not in large quantities, but more as a flavor-adding accompaniment. Consider chilled grilled meats and vegetables with a sauce or salad dressing for dipping. Or wrap small pieces of meat in lettuce leaves, making an elegant presentation for an ordinary ingredient.
Grilling evokes mouth-watering thoughts of burgers, chicken, steaks or hot dogs, but grills can do wonders for vegetables, too. Even the most reluctant veggie-eaters will have a change of heart when it comes to grilled corn on the cob, portabella mushrooms, eggplant and even the ever-abundant zucchini.
The magic of grilled vegetables has to do with flavors, which are transformed from humdrum to fantastic in the searing heat of the grill. And the same marinades that transform meat into grilled treats can also work wonders on vegetables.
One favorite base recipe from which many other barbecue sauces have been born is 1 cup of vinegar, ¼ cup of cooking oil, 1 egg, 2 tablespoons of chicken bouillon, 1 tablespoon of crushed or dried garlic, ½ teaspoon of salt and ½ teaspoon of pepper. Place these ingredients into a tightly sealed container along with your favorite minced herbs and shake vigorously. Coat meat and vegetables with the sauce before placing them on the grill, and brush with remaining sauce when flipping or rotating.
Perhaps one of the greatest things about grilling is the idea that once the grill is hot, it is easy to cook more than what is needed for one meal. You can grill extra meat, fish, potatoes and other vegetables for the coming week without a lot of extra effort. Fully cooked meat off the grill can be chilled or frozen in labeled packages for easy lunches and dinners later. Make a smokey flavored salad with potatoes that have been grilled and chilled, toss in some salad dressing and add a can of drained tuna for a great main dish.
For many, the idea of soup in summer is not too appealing, but think about cold soups and get ready to slurp. Chilled soups such as borscht, gazpacho, cucumber or avocado soup offer endless varieties, and give you an opportunity to taste summer’s bounty in a new way.
Gazpacho is a versatile recipe, variations of which can be found in the food traditions of many nations. One variation involves vodka and a salt-rimmed glass and goes by a different name. Each variety begins with basic ingredients that can vary in quantity based on what you have on hand. Local and fresh is best, but having some canned diced tomatoes in the pantry will work as well.
Mince 6 medium-sized tomatoes, reserving juice, with 3 stalks of celery, 1 small onion or 3 green onions, 1 peeled cucumber and 1 bell pepper.
Combine these minced ingredients with 2 tablespoons lemon juice, ½ teaspoons of black pepper, 1 teaspoon finely diced cilantro and 2 cups of tomato juice. Add several dashes of hot sauce to taste.
Place in a non-metal container and refrigerate until chilled, about 3 hours. Serve with tortilla chips. It’s easy to add cooked shrimp, avocado, or minced, cooked, leftover chicken to vary the recipe.
Salads are a summer staple, and the variations are truly endless. With the addition of pasta, rice and beans, salads make filling, light meals and are best made the night before when temperatures are cooler and the flavors have time to absorbed.
For an easy, flavorful summer salad, slice zucchini, summer squash, onions and green beans along with peas (snow or snap varieties) and dip into boiling water for 30 seconds. Run cold water of the vegetable before combining with cooked rice or pasta, and prepared beans (soaked and drained, or canned beans, rinsed). Toss in sliced kale, spinach leaves, olives and cherry tomatoes; drizzle with salad dressing; add salt and pepper to taste. Add in sliced pepperoni or leftover grilled sausage pieces. Toss to coat, and refrigerate overnight.
Summer beverages always seem more refreshing when orange or lemon slices are added to ice water. Make sun tea and add some mint sprigs, and a splash of lemon juice or lemonade.
Freeze fruit juice in ice cube trays and drop into seltzer water, or drop in frozen berries instead of ice cubes.
Make a fresh pot of coffee and allow to cool to room temperature before adding in a few drops of vanilla extract, sweetener and some milk, then place in the refrigerator for a few hours for a chilled, late-afternoon pick-me-up.
Summer meals are best when served with lots of the in-season chilled fruits.
A bowl of cold grapes, sliced melon, strawberries or halved plums make dining more leisurely, less rushed and allows everyone to munch on refreshing, light foods. The sweet flavors of fruit can easily be counted as a standalone dessert, but whipped cream is a grand addition.
Finally, the best part of summer meals in this region is the great opportunity to eat out of doors.
Simply sitting on a front porch, balcony, back steps or picnic table in a nearby park, this is the time of year to relax outside for your meals. Simple, quick and refreshing are some of the most important ingredients for dining this summer.