Summer dining guidelines are based on two rationales, that in warm weather eaters lost interest in eating and cooks feel trapped in their kitchens. Negative thoughts, both of them, and not necessarily valid.
I started thinking about this the other evening, part way through the bottle of white burgundy that played an essential supporting role in what I came to consider - once it and the bottle had been consumed - an ideal summer meal. The positive aspect of summer meals, I decided, is that formal and formula menus can be thrown out the window, even when entertaining. The cook can dictate what will be served, even to guests, and justify it all in the name of summer fare.
The meal in question (for two) consisted of grilled chicken halves, some squash that was steamed and then tossed in butter and lemon juice, onion quarters baked in foil, a green salad and a much appreciated gift, kiwi fruit that I chilled, peeled and sliced.
There was no first course, no sauce, no prepared dessert. The food was very fresh, so the most difficult task for the cook was preparing the charcoal fire in the grill. The chicken was basted with a mixture of soy sauce, lemon juice and rosemary. The salad dressing was mustard, vinegar and oil. With so little distraction, the odds that everything will come out right are greatly increased.
A colleague entertained a dozen people with an equally simple formula. A spread and crackers were served with shandys (a mixture of beer and lemonade) before the meal. Then steamed and boiled crabs were served at newspaper-covered tables on a porch. Macarom salad and coleslaw were placed in the middle of the tables: beer was passed. When no one could continue, the paper plates and shells were wrapped in the newspapers and discarded. Clean tablecloths lay beneath, ready to receive fruit-filled watermelon halves and cups of coffee.
The cook had worked and the eaters didn't stint themselves, yet it was easy and fun for everyone.
But even to be informal there is a need for inspiration. Luckily another cliche of summer is that it is the time for light reading. Whether cookery books are frivolous or not is a subject for fall and winter discussion. In summer no excuse is needed to peruse them in search of a broader cooking repertory. As stimulation, I offer here some recipes appropriate for summer dining I've culled from favorite books along with a few others obtained first hand.
Too often cucumber appears only in salads or as a "boat" transporting an elaborate salad. It has other uses, as was proved one recent evening by Marie-Therese Colonna, the "dean" of teachers of cooking in the area whose Northern Virginia pupils are legion. She offered this recipe as an hors d'oeuvre. CUCUMBER CREAM (Makes 2 cups) 8 ounces soft cream cheese creamed 2 large cucumbers, peeled 1 tablespoon finely chopped onion 1 tablespoon finely chopped green olives 1 to 2 teaspoons finely grated lemon rind 1/4 teaspoon (generous) curry power 1/4 teaspoon (generous) ground ginger Salt and pepper to taste Chopped parsley Drained capers
Cut cucumbers in half lengthwise Remove seeds with a spoon, slice finely and place in a bowl. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and cover with a weighted plate. Refrigerate for about 30 minutes, then drain off liquid and rinse cucumbers under cold water.
Place cucumbers in a towel or cheesecloth and squeeze out liquid. Chop finely and mix with other ingredients, reserving parsley and capers. Taste and adjust seasoning. Transfer to a bowl or 2-cup mold and chill for 2 to 3 hours. Serve from the bowl or unmold on a platter. Garnish with parsley and capers and serve with melba toast. This will keep well covered in the refrigerator for 2 or 3 days.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the Northern Chinese restaurants that have opened here in such profusion in the last few years is the cold appetizers they prepare. The one that follows has the advantages of being a dish that is prepared ahead, can await your guests' pleasure and may be made from leftover meat. It comes from one of the best of recent books on Chinese cooking. "The Good Food of Szechuan" by Robert A. Delfs (Kodansha). COLD PORK WITH GARLIC (6 to 8 appetizer servings) 1 pound pork loin or rump 1 seallion, cut in long pieces 2 large slices fresh ginger 1 teaspoon salt For the sauce 5 teaspoons soy sauce 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon vinegar 2 teaspoons sesame oil (optional) 2 tablespoons red oil (available at Oriental groceries) 1 1/2 tablespoons crushed or finely chopped garlic 1 tablespoon water 1 teaspoon sugar
Place the piece of pork in a wok or large pot, add water to cover the meat and add the green onion, ginger and salt. Bring to a boil and cook over a medium flame for 20 to 30 minutes or until the pork is tender. Remove pork. When cooked, cut the meat into very thin slices. Arrange the slices on a serving platter. Strain and use the broth for pork stock, if desired.
Mix the sauce ingredients in a cup or small bowl. Let stand for 10 to 15 minutes. To serve, simply pour over pork. Garnish with parsley. (Note: A pound of leftover roast pork that has not been highly seasoned could be sliced and dressed with the same sauce.
Cold soup is a summer cliche, although no matter how familiar the formula, if the soup is well made and chilled and the day or evening hot, it is bound to please. The Mediterranean, an area whose very name invokes images of summer, has spawned many wonderful warm weather dishes. A large number of them have been recorded by Paula Wolfert in a vividly personal volume called "Meditterranean Cooking" Quadrangle. Her soup has a yogurt base. TARATOR (4 servings) 1/2 cup walnut halves 3 large cloves garlic, peeled 2 tablespoons olive oil 4 cups unflavored yogurt 2 firm cucumbers, peeled and seeded Salt and freshly ground black pepper Chopped mint
In a mortar pound the walnuts with the garlic until pasty; then start adding the oil, drop by drop, stirring constantly. Dump the yogurt into a large mixing bowl and beat unitl liquid. Beat in the walnut-garlic paste. Dice or grate the cucumbers, drain then fold into the yogurt soup. Season with salt and pepper. Chill well. Garnish with chopped mint if desired.
From Paula Wolfert's "Mediterranean Cooking"
Here is the grilled chicken preparation that began all this. It was done on a grill over charcoal, but could be broiled in the oven. The chicken half retains much more of its juices than smaller pieces, so the "trick" is not to overcook the meat. An internal temperature of 145 to 150 degrees is sufficient. GRILLED CHICKEN (2 to 4 servings) 1 broiler chicken 2 1/2 to 3 pounds Pepper Salad or olive oil 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1 tablespoon soy sauce 1 teaspoon rosemary, crushed
Split the chicken in half. Rub skin side lightly with oil and oil grill or broiler pan. Season with pepper and place over coals, skin side down, for 5 minutes. Mix together lemon juice, soy and rosemary, turn bird and baste. Cook for 5 minutes. Turn and baste again. Cover grill of the grill has a cover) and cook for 10 minutes. Turn and baste a final time. Recover grill and cook for 5 minutes, or until done. FRIED GREEN TOMATOES (4 servings) 2 or 3 green tomatoes, cut in 1/4 inch slices. 1 egg 1/2 cup bread crumbs, season with salt, pepper and cayenne pepper to taste 3 to 4 tablespoons butter 1/2 lemon
Melt butter in a larger frying pan, cast iron if following tradition. As pan heats, beat egg in a bowl. Dip slices into egg, then into bread crumbs. Fry tomato slices in butter for about 3 minutes on a side, removing them before they go soft. Squeeze a little lemon juice over them just before serving.
This recipe comes from one of the most readable of cook books. James Beard's autobiographical "Delights and Prejudices" (Simon and Schuster). I have had success cooking the capon in the outdoor broiler-oven over charcoal with hickory chips and therefore present that method as an alternate method of preparation. The skin becomes very dark, but the flavor is such that the sauce isn't really necessary if serving the bird hot. SAUSAGE-STUFF CAPON (8 servings) 1 capon or 5 to 6 pound roasting chicken, boned except for legs 3 garlic sausages 1/2 cup white wine 1/2 cup melted butter or margarine Salt and pepper to taste
Have the butcher bone the bird, or do it yourself, working from the neck back. Poach the sausages for 2 or 3 minutes until firm, drain and cut away skins. Stuff the bird, forming it back into shape, and truss it or close the vents with skewers.
Rub melted butter over the bird and roast on a rack in a shallow pan for 2 to 2 1/2 hours at 325 degrees. Baste from time to time with a mixture of remaining butter and white wine.Season with salt and pepper when half cooked. Alternatively, roast bird outdoors in a covered broiler over charcoal and history, being sure to use a drip pan or a metal skillet.Baste and season as above. Cooking time will be considerably shorter. Use a meal theremometer as a guide.
Allow bird to cool, then curt away legs and slice across breast into serving portions.
When serving the bird hot. Beard makes a sauce by combining the pan drippings (skimmed of fat) with 1 1/2 cups chicken broth, reduces the mixture to 1 cup over high heat, then adds 1/2 cup cream, 3 egg yolks and 1/4 cup sherry or madeira.
The great summer desserts are mostly the obvious ones preparations built around seasonal fruits or ice creams. This dessert, the lemon dacquoise, isn't obvious and is very special. In New York it is served in half-a-dozen or more top restaurants. Each one is somewhat different and each has its champions, though the version served at the Coach House is my personal benchmark. John Clancy, one of the country's outstanding teachers, introduced the dacquoise to the Coach House menu when he was chef there. His recipe is found in "Clacy's Oven Cookery" (Delacorte Press). It is printed here with the instructions text compressed. LEMON DACQUOISE (6 to 8 servings) 2 tablespoons softened butter tablespoons flour
FOR THE MERRINGUES: 1 cup unsalted whole almonds, blanched and toasted 2/3 cup granulated sugar 2 tablespoons cornstarch 6 eggs whites (from "large" eggs)
FOR THE BUTTERCREAM 2 egg yolks 1 cup confectioners' sugar 1/2 cp hot milk 1/2 pound (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice 2 tablespoons freshly grated lemon rind 1 cup heavy cream, whipped and refrigerated 1/2 cup unsalted toasted almonds, sliced 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar, sifted
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Prepare two 9-inch layer-cake pans with softened butter and flour.
To make meringues, pulverize the whole almonds, one third at a time, in a blender at high speed. Transfer to a small bowl. Stir in sugar and cornstarch. In a large bowl, beat the egg whites until they hold stiff peaks. Sprinkle on nut mixture and fold together gently with a rubber spatula. With the spatula divide the mixture evenly into the pans and smooth the tops.
Place pans on middle shelf of oven and bake for 1 hour, or until layers are pale brown and have shrunk slightly from the edges. Remove pans, turn meringues onto wire rack and let them cool.TTo prepare buttercream, put yolks in a heavysaucepan, then add 1 cup confeftioner's sugar all at once. Mix together to obtain a smooth paste and stir in milk gradually. Stir over heat until mixture lightly coats a spoon. Do not allow to boil or it will curdle.
Work cold butter rapidly in a bowl with fingers so it becomes soft but not warm or oily. Using an electric beater, beat butter into a yolk mixture, 2 tablespoons at a time. When finished, scrape down sides of bowl, beat in lemon jiuce and continue to beat until mixture forms smooth peaks. Mix in grated rind. Fold in whipped cream.
To assemble, invert one of the baking pans and put a dab of buttercream in the centre to act as glue. Set 1 meringue on the pan. With an icing spatula, spread all but 1/4 cup of the butter cream on the meringue. Set the second meringue on the buttercream layer. Spread remaining buttercream around sides of both meringues and press sliced almonds against it. Place Dacquoise, still on the pan, in the refrigerator to chill for at least 1 hour before serving. Just before serving, sieve 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar over the top and transfer to a serving plate.