If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
That's what tough-talking politicians say, making it sound as though only a wimp would head for the exit. But anyone who has ever cooked dinner during August knows that it is only fools who stay in the kitchen. Sensible people do not want to resemble a rain forest, drip, drip, dripping on the kitchen floor as sauces simmer and tempers grow short.
Instead, they serve foods that do not require cooking, or that can be whisked on and off the stove so that time in the kitchen is short.
Salads, of course, do not require that you heat them before you eat them, but by August avocado stuffed with shrimp and Caesar salad and cole slaw are friends we know too well. The delicate eats from the delicatessen are cooked before you get them, but they, too, are beginning to bore. The chef's job when offering up cold cuts is to use sufficient imagination in the choice and presentation so that guests do not bow their heads in despair. This means that you never, ever, offer one of those tired plastic platters that are the mainstay of office parties.
An imaginative selection of breads, cold meats and cheeses, accompanied by bowls of radishes, cherry tomatoes and black olives, is a perfectly acceptable main course on a steamy evening when appetites are as low as the temperature is high.
But make it look pretty: Use Syrian string cheese that you have unstrung, so that it lies heaped in coils in the middle of the platter, surrounded by rings of black olives and red radishes, with a rim of green peppers.
Press goat's cheese out on a board and cut it out with Christmas cookie cutters before arranging it on the platter so that, instead of the traditional log of cheese, you have stars and moons and goat's-cheese men. Play with your food and your guests will know that even if you didn't cook it, you cared about it.
Dye hard-boiled eggs in as many colors as there are couples coming to your party, place them in a basket by the door and have guests, on entering, choose an egg. When it is time to serve dinner, let the matching eggs sit together. And tell your guests that the egg is their first course. To keep the heat out of the kitchen, cook the eggs by putting them in a pot of cold water, bringing it to the boil, turning off the heat and letting the eggs sit covered for 20 minutes.
Pasta, as hard-boiled eggs, does not require much cooking. And, after it has been drained but while it still is hot, it can be tossed with a bit of olive oil and Parmesan cheese. Then top it with chopped fresh tomatoes, capers and black olives and serve it with bread sticks and butter.
Gazpacho is another August meal that needs no cooking. The rich, peasanty soup is thickened with slices of crustless bread that have been soaked in a couple of tablespoons of vinegar, one or two cloves of crushed garlic and enough water so that the mixture can be beaten into a paste.
In the meantime, tomatoes, red onions and peppers are peeled and chopped. Most of the chopped vegetables go into the blender, with a bit of olive oil and the bread mixture, to be beaten into a puree.
This puree then is thinned with water to a proper consistency (or tomato juice if it tastes too bland), the rest of the chopped vegetables are added to the soup and it is chilled. Add salt and pepper just before serving, since cold foods take more seasoning. Served with a loaf of crusty bread, gazpacho is both soup and salad and a pleasant summer meal.
It also is so low on calories that your guests will not think you have sabotaged their diets when you follow it with a summer pudding -- simply slices of a good white bread with the crusts cut off, cut to fit the inside of a bowl or mold.
This then is filled with stewed berries -- raspberries, blackberries, blueberries. Put the berries in a pan with sugar -- in the proportion of 1 cup berries to 1/4-cup sugar, though this can be varied to taste -- and press some of the berries with the back of a spoon to release their juices.
Stew for 5 or 10 minutes, just long enough for the warm juices to melt the sugar. Top the mold with more of the crustless bread, cover with a plate that fits inside the mold and put a weight on the plate and refrigerate. Unmolded, sliced and served with ice cream or sweetened whipped cream, it is an ideal summer dessert.
Such simple meals, while saving the chef from heat stroke, should not be served in a slapdash manner. Presentation can make the simplest meal seem elegant and the wise chef makes up for the simplicity of the meal by serving it in a fancy setting.
When the pretty platters are set out on the table and the candles are lit, no one will notice that you couldn't stand the heat and left the kitchen.