Who wants to cook in August? Yet guests come as often as ever, tempted by the long days and relaxed air of vacation. Carrying that spirit into the kitchen, this menu involves little work and even less cooking. Ingredients are easy to find and offer plenty of scope for the imagination.
As example, take the stuffed tomato appetizer. I suggest a filling of bean sprouts with an oriental touch of ginger, soy and sesame oil. Celery, water chestnuts, peanuts and thinly sliced mushrooms all would add variety, and chopped shrimp or ham would transform the whole salad into a light main course. You could use a more traditional Italian or French dressing if you prefer.
The baked fish recipe evolved when we rented a house on the ocean. Arriving in the late afternoon, sun-drunk and happy from the beach, we had no taste for grand cooking. I would slice any vegetables available, set one of the local fish on top with a shower of oil and seasoning, then leave it to bake while I relaxed on the porch. The fish we preferred was bluefish, but any small or medium whole fish such as sea bass, hake, trout or catfish is suitable. For the best of vegetables I've specified onion and bell peppers, but the recipe works equally well with tomatoes, mushrooms, zucchini or eggplant.
Sherbet is the perfect way to capture the flavor of fresh summer berries and can be stored a month before the texture starts to crystallize. So the prudent cook makes large quantities of sherbet when fruit is at its cheapest and most perfumed (the aroma of berries is an infallible guide to quality), using one of the inexpensive churn machines that fit in the freezer.
Sherbet calls for cookies; these spiced wafers are one of my favorites, the ginger flavor a partiality dating from my English upbringing. The dough can be made ahead and frozen, then thawed and sliced to bake whenever you wish. Timetable
Reflecting the season, preparation in this menu is gently paced.
Up to 1 month ahead: Make berry sherbet and keep in freezer.
Up to 2 days ahead: Bake wafers and store in airtight container. Cook rice pilaf and refrigerate.
Up to 4 hours before serving: Prepare tomatoes, dressing, bean sprouts and lettuce and refrigerate. Prepare fish for baking and refrigerate.
One hour before serving: Heat oven to 375 degrees. Arrange wafers on platter for serving. Set the table. Chill the wine.
45 minutes before serving: Bake the fish. Transfer sherbet to refrigerator to soften.
15 minutes before serving: Finish stuffed tomatoes. Reheat rice pilaf in oven.
5 minutes before serving: Transfer fish to platter, finish cooking vegetables, pile them on platter and keep warm.
After serving fish: Scoop sherbet into stemmed glasses. ORIENTAL STUFFED TOMATOES (6 servings)
6 large very ripe tomatoes
Salt and pepper
4 cups bean sprouts
1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger root
1 tablespoon chopped fresh coriander
6 leaves boston or leaf lettuce, washed
FOR THE DRESSING:
1 teaspoon soy sauce, more to taste
3 tablespoons wine vinegar
1/3 cup oil
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
Remove core from top of each tomato, reserving top for a lid, and cut a thin slice from bottom so tomato stands upright. Scoop out tomato seeds with a teaspoon; strain seeds and reserve juice. Sprinkle inside of tomatoes with salt and pepper and leave upside down to drain.
Put bean sprouts in a large bowl, cover them with boiling water, let stand 1 minute and drain thoroughly. Mix sprouts with ginger and coriander. Tomatoes, dressing, bean sprouts and lettuce can be prepared up to 4 hours ahead and refrigerated.
To make dressing: in a small bowl whisk soy sauce and vinegar with a little pepper. Add both oils in a steady stream, whisking so dressing emulsifies and thickens slightly. Whisk in tomato juice and add more soy sauce, sesame oil or pepper to taste.
To finish, whisk dressing until it reemulsifies. Toss bean sprouts with dressing and fill tomatoes, mounding mixtures well. Add lid and set tomatoes on lettuce leaves on individual plates. Serve within 15 minutes. BAKED FISH BASQUAISE (6 servings)
1/2 cup olive oil
2 onions, sliced
6 bell peppers, cored, seeded and cut in strips
3 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 tablespoon dried thyme
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Salt and pepper to taste
6 to 7 pound whole fish, or two smaller fish, 3 1/2 to 4 pounds each
In a 375-degree oven heat a tablespoon of oil in a large flameproof baking dish or roasting pan and fry onion until lightly browned. Stir in bell peppers, thyme, garlic, salt and pepper and remove from heat.
Wash fish, trimming tail and fins but leaving head. Pat dry with paper towels. Score flesh deeply with 3 to 4 diagonal slashes on each side so flesh cooks evenly. Set fish on vegetables, spoon over remaining oil and sprinkle with salt, pepper and juice of 1 lemon.
Fish can be prepared up to 3 hours ahead; keep it loosely covered in refrigerator. Cut remaining lemon in wedges.
Bake the fish uncovered in a 375-degree oven until it flakes easily, basting occasionally, 40 to 50 minutes for the large fish or 25 to 35 minutes for the smaller ones. Transfer fish to a platter and keep warm. Cook peppers on top of stove until very tender and liquid has evaporated, 1 to 2 minutes. Spoon vegetables around fish, decorate it with lemon wedges and serve. BERRY SHERBET (Makes 1 quart)
Use with any ripe berries.
1 1/2 quarts berries
3/4 cup sugar, or to taste
1 cup water
Juice 1 lemon
1 tablespoon kirsch (optional)
Pick over and hull berries, washing them only if sandy. Pure'e them in a food processor or blender and strain to remove seeds.
In a bowl combine pure'e, sugar, water, lemon juice and kirsch. Taste, adding more sugar or lemon juice if needed. Note: Flavor should be concentrated, as freezing deadens taste.
Freeze in an ice cream freezer. When stiff, transfer sherbet to a mold or bowl, cover and freeze. Sherbet is best eaten within 1 week of making, but can be kept for up to a month before texture becomes granular. If frozen more than 24 hours, let it stand in refrigerator 1 hour to soften before serving.
For serving, scoop sherbet into individual stemmed glasses. SPICED WAFERS (Makes about 30 wafers)
1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/2 cup butter
6 tablespoons light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Sift flour, ginger, cinnamon and allspice onto a board and make a well in the center. Pound butter to soften; add to well with brown sugar and baking powder. With finger tips, work ingredients in the well until mixed. Gradually draw in flour, working with both hands to form large crumbs.
Press dough into a ball, then knead on the board, pushing it away with the heel of your hand and gathering it up with a metal spatula, until it peels easily from the board in one piece, about 2 minutes. Press dough into a 6-by 3-by-1-inch block, wrap and chill until firm, at least 2 hours and up to 3 days. Dough can also be frozen.
Cut dough into wafer-thin slices and set on a baking sheet lined with foil. Bake in a 400-degree oven for 5 to 7 minutes until golden brown. Transfer wafers, on the sheet of foil, to a rack to cool. Note: Wafers will crisp as they cool. Wafers can be stored up to 2 days in an airtight container.