Basic to the summer style of eating is the notion that food served barely warm or at room temperature both sparks the tastebuds and lightens the workload of the cook.
Summer food, then, means combining garden-fresh vegetables, verdant herbs and flavorsome seasonings to create light and refreshing meals. One of the best things about a summer meal is that the main course can be something grilled, or something poached or roasted, and served cool. Thus you are left with free time to prepare a first course of contrasting textures, satisfying to both the eye and the stomach.
The first courses of summer are at best visually suggestive, relaxed and free from the last-minute pressure of preparation. This is easy to accomplish in summer because the quality and variety of the raw ingredients -- namely, vegetables and herbs -- make them so good on their own.
These first-course dishes are not the overly refined and fragile kinds of food that take you through many complicated preparatory stages. Short of cooking rice, boiling pasta and cutting up vegetables, these overtures depend on good-tasting ingredients, not hours of the cook's time, to produce admirable results.
Baked Mixed Vegetable Salad turns a fine selection of really ripe tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and zucchini, plus herbs, into a tasty kind of cooked vegetable compote. Vegetable salads have a reputation for lengthy preparation, but this one could be a revelation.
Instead of frying or steaming each vegetable separately, all the cut-up vegetables are baked with a fresh tomato pure'e, tomato paste, a few splashes of sweet red vermouth, vinegar and, later on during cooking, olives and capers. What emerges is a dish of vegetables glazed over with just enough liquid to keep them glossy and moist; the taste is vivid and sparkling.
Served barely warm or cool (not cold), dotted with sprigs of fresh basil, and accompanied by some slices of crusty bread, this makes for a heady first course. If you add pieces of tuna fish or cooked chicken, you have created an excellent luncheon dish or delightful main course for a light supper.
The recipes for Sweet and Sour Summer Squash and White Bean Salad with Tomato and Fresh Mozzarella turn humble squash and tomato into something special.
For the former, slices of pattypan, zucchini and crookneck squash are lightly passed through olive oil to brown slightly. This intensifies the flavor of the typically bland squash and gives a more well-rounded flavor to this sort of saute'ed salad. After the vegetables have been cooked, and the pan is drained of oil, the dressing is made in the skillet with vinegar and sugar.
The flavor of the salad is robust and taste-awakening as is, but you could fold through a couple of cups of grilled pork or chicken cut up into strips to make a complete main course salad (then the addition of a few salad greens would round out it all).
The taste of the White Bean Salad combines the smoothness of the beans with the gentle acidic bite of tomatoes and the soft flavor of fresh mozzarella cheese. Fresh mozzarella has a lighter, less compact texture than its packaged relative and, while more perishable, has a glorious flavor.
When tomatoes inundate farm market stands or overrun the garden, it's time to make the Thin Spaghetti Salad with a Sauce of Raw Tomatoes, Garlic and Scallops. The sauce is nothing but a pure'e of the meaty flesh of ripe summer tomatoes with a stir-in of garlic, basil, mint, cayenne pepper and salt. Very soft and oozing-ripe tomatoes, unfit for just plain slicing, make the basis for the best sauce.
Tiny sweet bay scallops are briefly saute'ed in olive oil, which adds another dimension to the taste of the sauce. This is a festive dish, fine for beginning an alfresco dinner, to offer as one among a number of room temperature buffet dishes, or to use as an easy warm weather lunch.
The first course of Prosciutto, Figs and Parmesan Cheese Chips reflects the simple art of assembling good ingredients. It's the precise combination of wonderful raw ingredients that makes this first course work. You'll need bursting ripe figs and a small block of aged parmesan cheese.
The sweetness and fragrance of the figs is the perfect contrast to the saltiness of the cheese and prosciutto. To finish the dish, a drizzle of olive oil over top of all moistens the prosciutto and cheese in a subtle way, and while not technically a dressing, blends all of the ingredients together.
The wild rice salad is made up of some assertive flavors -- sun-dried tomatoes, red onion slices, fragrant basil -- that mingle with the rice. The rice, in turn, absorbs all of the flavors along with the sweet taste of the fresh shrimp. This is an easy-going salad, one which can easily exchange scallops or lumps of crab meat for the shrimp, and boiled white rice or brown rice for the wild variety.
The rice may be cooked several days ahead and stored in the refrigerator, covered, when cooled down. The dressing is easy enough to whip up at the last moment. Serve the salad on a rather flat platter, mounding it toward the center for a pretty presentation. Ring the outside, if you like, with little sprigs of fresh basil. Or make one small bouquet of fresh basil to garnish the side of the platter.
Here are the recipes to use for enjoying the many flavors of summer: BAKED MIXED VEGETABLE SALAD (6 generous servings)
Every time I prepare this appetizer and serve it to guests, they eat too much of it, never quite leaving enough room for what is to follow -- it's that delicious. Best of all, it's uncommonly easy to make because the vegetables do not require any advance cooking before being baked. To enlarge this salad for serving at lunch, add strips of poached chicken or big chunks of tuna packed in olive oil.
2 eggplants, peeled and cut into large cubes
Coarse (kosher) salt for sprinkling
5 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and pure'ed
2 tablespoons good quality tomato paste
2 sweet red peppers, stemmed, cored, seeded and cut into 1-inch strips
1 sweet green pepper, stemmed, cored, seeded and cut into 1-inch strips
1 pint (about 2 cups) small pearl onions, peeled and trimmed of any roots
3 zucchini, washed, trimmed, halved and cut into 1-inch nuggets
1 small bay leaf, preferably imported
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
3 tablespoons sweet red vermouth
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup black oil-cured olives
1 tablespoon tiny, nonpareil capers, drained
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Place eggplant cubes in a colander, sprinkle with coarse salt, and let drain for about 30 minutes to extract any bitter juices; dry the cubes on sheets of paper toweling.
In a large roasting pan or deep baking dish, preferably of stainless steel (do not use aluminum as it will interfere with the vinegar and vermouth), combine the eggplant cubes with the tomato pure'e and tomato paste. Sprinkle over the cubes the pepper strips, onions, zucchini chunks, bay leaf, vinegar, vermouth, sugar, thyme and olive oil. Toss all together well. Shake the pan lightly to arrange the vegetables on one level and bake on the middle level rack of a 350-degree oven for 1 hour and 20 minutes, occasionally stirring. Add the olives and capers, season the vegetables with salt and pepper, stir, and continue to bake until the vegetables are crisply tender.
Cool the vegetables, adding additional salt and pepper as needed. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator, but bring the salad to room temperature before serving. SWEET AND SOUR SUMMER SQUASH (6 servings)
1/2 cup olive oil plus extra for sprinkling
2 pounds summer squash (choose from a combination of pattypan, zucchini and yellow crookneck, preferably using a combination of all three, cut into 1-inch thick slices)
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup shredded fresh basil leaves plus whole leaves for garnish, if desired
2 tablespoons finely minced fresh parsley leaves
Heat olive oil in a skillet over a moderately high flame. Pat dry the slices of squash on paper toweling, and fry the squash, several batches at a time, until lightly browned on both sides and tender to the bite; remove the squash with tongs to a side dish.
When all of the squash has been browned, pour out all but 2 tablespoons of oil. Pour in the vinegar, add sugar and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, stirring, then boil for 10 seconds and pour off onto the squash. Cool the squash. After a few hours, fold in the shredded basil and parsley. Sprinkle on enough olive oil to balance out any lingering acidity of vinegar. Transfer the squash to a platter and garnish with whole fresh basil leaves, if you like. WHITE BEAN SALAD WITH TOMATO AND FRESH MOZZARELLA (6 servings)
Fresh mozzarella, which may be purchased in odd-shaped balls that float in a tub of water or a light brine made with water and salt, is available at good cheese departments of some large markets, at Italian grocery stores and at specialty food stores. When purchasing, it is best to ask for a hunk of cheese to be packed in a container with a little of the water added to it to keep it fresh and moist until cutting and serving time. Before using, drain the cheese from the liquid and lightly pat dry on paper toweling; ideally, fresh mozzarella should be consumed on the day it has been purchased for the true flavor to be appreciated.
4 cups cooked white beans (dried great northern white beans soaked overnight, simmered in water until tender, and drained; or, canned Italian cannellini beans, or other mild-flavored white bean, well drained)
3 ripe tomatoes, cut into 1-inch wedges, seeded
1 small ball (about 8 ounces) of fresh mozzarella, cut into rough cubes
3 tablespoon good red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
3 tablespoons safflower oil
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 teaspoons tiny nonpareil capers, drained and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh oregano leaves or hand-shredded fresh basil leaves, plus extra basil leaves for garnish, if desired
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves
In a large nonmetallic bowl (preferably one of porcelain, glass or glazed earthware), gently combine the beans, tomato wedges and mozzarella. Whisk together the vinegar and mustard. Slowly blend in both oils; season with salt and pepper. Stir in capers and herbs. Pour dressing over the bean mixture and carefully mix everything together.
Spoon onto a platter and garnish with some fresh basil leaves, if you like. THIN SPAGHETTI SALAD WITH A SAUCE OF RAW TOMATOES GARLIC AND SCALLOPS (6 servings)
3/4 pound bay scallops, trimmed of any attached muscle, rinsed in cool water, and drained on paper toweling
1/2 cup and 1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound spaghettini
6 large tomatoes, skinned, seeded and pure'ed
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons hand-shredded fresh basil
2 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh mint
2 tablespoons roughly chopped parsley leaves
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
Make sure that the scallops are dry, blotting them with extra paper toweling if needed. Heat 4 tablespoons of oil in a skillet over moderate heat. Add the scallops and stir-cook until they just turn opaque, about 3 to 4 minutes. Spoon the scallops and any cooking juices into a bowl and set aside to cool.
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil, add the spaghettini, stir, and cook until just tender to the bite. Drain the pasta well in a large colander and toss with 3 tablespoons olive oil; set aside to cool, tossing the pasta now and again.
Combine the tomatoes, garlic, sugar, basil, mint, parsley, cayenne pepper and salt to taste. Rapidly whisk in the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil to give the sauce body and sheen. Stir in scallops and any liquid that may have accumulated. Toss the spaghettini with the sauce; let stand for as long as a few hours (if convenient) to allow the pasta to absorb some of the dressing. Taste for additonal salt and pepper and toss again before serving from a decorative platter. PROSCIUTTO, FIGS AND PARMESAN CHEESE CHIPS (6 servings)
A twist on the prosciutto and melon theme adds slivers of parmesan.
The firm cheese is not just hacked off but cut into thin, irregular slivers. You can do this by using a small chef's knife with a 6-inch blade: Place the cheese on a cutting board and hold the knife at an angle for cutting off pieces of cheese about 1/3 inch thick, anchoring the chunk of cheese with the other hand as you cut away. You will get some irregular shards, which can be used along with the bigger size chips.
12 ripe, fresh figs, stems removed and cut in half, at room temperature
1/3 pound good quality parmesan cheese, trimmed of any rind and cut into thin slivers, at room temperature
18 slices of prosciutto, at room temperature
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Sprigs of fresh thyme to garnish the platter
Olive oil for serving (optional)
Arrange the fig halves, cheese and prosciutto on a platter. Sprinkle lightly with freshly ground pepper. Decorate with sprigs of fresh thyme, if desired.
After individual plates are filled with a whole fig, cheese and prosciutto, pass a cruet of olive oil so that each guest may pour a bit over for flavor and moistening. WILD RICE SALAD WITH SUN DRIED TOMATOES AND SHRIMP (6 servings)
1 1/2 cups wild rice
4 1/2 cups light chicken broth
4 cups water
8 whole peppercorns
1/2 bay leaf
2-inch strip lemon peel
1 pound fresh shrimp
1/4 cup sun-dried tomato pieces (available in jars or out of glass bins at specialty food stores, Italian markets and some chain supermarkets), drained and cut into thin slivers
2 tablespoons oil from the preserved tomatoes
4 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons dijon mustard
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup safflower oil
1/2 cup thinly sliced celery
1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion
1/4 cup finely chopped parsley leaves
5 small fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces plus extra fresh basil leaves for decoration, if desired
Dump the wild rice into a large fine-mesh sieve and rinse in cool water. Drain well. Place the rice in a saucepan or casserole, add the chicken broth and bring to the boil. Cover and simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until all of the liquid has been absorbed and the grains of rice have expanded. Transfer the rice to a large bowl to cool down completely.
In a large saucepan bring the water to the boil with the peppercorns, bay leaf and lemon peel. Add the shrimp and cook just until they turn opaque, about 3 to 4 minutes (the water will not return to the boil but the shrimp will cook in the heat of the liquid). Drain the shrimp and cool; remove the shells leaving the tail intact and devein. Toss the shrimp while they are still warm with pieces of sun-dried tomato and the oil from the preserved tomatoes.
In a bowl, whisk together vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper to taste. Slowly whisk in oils. Season to taste with extra salt and pepper.
About 2 hours before serving, combine the rice and shrimp and stir up the dressing. Pour the dressing over the rice, add the celery, onion, parsley and basil and toss everything together carefully but thoroughly.
Arrange the salad on a platter and decorate with small sprigs of fresh basil, if you like.