The spirit of summer is relaxation, in the kitchen as well as outside. This is the moment to call on the tricks of the trade. All three of these recipes have little dodges to save time and all can be doubled or tripled with ease.
Did you know, for instance, that melon is quite transformed by a touch of balsamic vinegar? Add a little Japanese aji mirin (sweet rice wine), or simply a pinch of sugar (small quantities are important) and in seconds you have a most presentable first course. (Aji mirin is available in Asian markets.)
Another useful tip is to cut fish fillets into diagonal strips called goujonettes. (The name comes from the French goujons, a type of little fish.) Not only does the fish look attractive, but it cooks more evenly and you can use flounder, perch, trout or whatever fresh fillets are available, as well as the more expensive sole. Just be careful not to overcook the more delicate types such as catfish.
In this recipe, the fish is cooked gently with butter in its own juices, then served with thinly sliced fennel, also cooked slowly so it softens without browning. Celery would be a good substitute if fennel is hard to find. A wine sauce with basil and tomato binds ingredients, which are served on a cheerful bed of green fettuccine. The pasta, if you follow my example, will be homemade by the corner store.
It was another corner store, the ice cream parlor, that suggested a shortcut to dessert. Ginger ice cream can be made from scratch, as described in my recipe. But if you're really pushed for time, buy a tub of vanilla and let it sit until soft. Then tip it into a chilled bowl and beat in the powdered and candied ginger, following the "mix-in" principle. Put it back in the freezer to firm while you serve the rest of the dinner. The spicy flavor is a perfect accompaniment to tropical fruits such as mango or papaya.
Timetable An easy schedule for an easy meal.
Up to 2 months ahead: Make ginger ice cream and freeze.
Up to 1 day ahead: Make the melon with balsamic vinegar and refrigerate.
Up to 4 hours before serving: Prepare the fennel and sole and refrigerate.
Up to 1 hour before serving: Transfer ice cream to refrigerator to soften.
Fifteen minutes before serving: Boil water for the pasta. Arrange melon salad on plates.
After serving the melon: Cook the pasta and finish the sole with fennel.
RECIPE MELON SALAD WITH BALSAMIC VINEGAR (4 servings)
For a different presentation, the melon can be sliced into long thin wedges and arranged like fans on the plates.
1 melon, about 2 pounds
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, or more to taste
1/2 teaspoon aji mirin (or 1/4 teaspoon sugar), or more to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
1 small head leaf lettuce, for serving
Several mint leaves
Halve melon, discarding the seeds. Cut away skin and slice flesh into 1-inch cubes.
In a bowl mix vinegar, mirin or sugar, salt and pepper. Add melon and toss to mix. Taste, adding more vinegar, mirin or seasoning. Melon may be covered and refrigerated up to a day before serving.
Just before serving, arrange lettuce leaves on individual plates and divide melon salad among them. Cut herb leaves into fine shreds and scatter over melon. Serve at once before herbs darken.
RECIPE GOUJONETTES OF SOLE WITH FENNEL AND BASIL (4 servings)
This recipe is also good with scallops or shrimp.
2 tablespoons butter
2 bulbs fennel, thinly sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
1 1/2 pounds sole fillets
12 ounces fresh, or 8 ounces dried, green fettuccine
1 cup white wine
1 cup whipping cream
Small bunch fresh basil, coarsely chopped
Small bunch fresh chives, chopped
2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
Melt half the butter in a saucepan, add fennel with salt and pepper and press a piece of foil on top. Cover with the lid and cook gently, 20 to 25 minutes, until very tender. Note: do not let fennel brown.
Wash and dry fish and cut it in 3/8-inch strips. Fennel and sole can be refrigerated up to 4 hours.
Cook fettuccine in a large pan of boiling salted water, allowing 8 to 10 minutes for dried pasta or 3 to 5 minutes for fresh. Drain and rinse thoroughly with hot water.
Meanwhile, reheat the fennel over low heat. Melt remaining butter in a frying pan. Sprinkle sole with salt and pepper, add to pan, cover and cook gently, stirring occasionally, for 3 to 4 minutes until the fish stiffens and turns white without browning. Lift it out with a slotted spoon and keep warm. Add wine to the pan and boil until reduced to 2 tablespoons. Stir in cream and boil 2 minutes. Stir in basil and chives and taste.
Arrange a bed of noodles on each individual plate. Spoon fennel on top and add fish. Spoon over the sauce, sprinkle with tomatoes and serve at once.
RECIPE GINGER ICE CREAM (Makes 1 quart to serve 4)
The combination of ground and candied ginger gives this ice cream its distinctive flavor.
2 ounces candied ginger
6 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons powdered ginger
3 cups milk
3/4 cup light cream
Pour boiling water over the candied ginger and leave until soft -- 10 to 15 minutes. Drain, dry and chop it.
Whisk together egg yolks, sugar and powdered ginger. Bring milk to a boil in a saucepan and whisk into egg yolk mixture. Return custard to the pan and cook it over low heat, stirring constantly, just until your finger leaves a clear trail when drawn across the back of the spoon. Note: Do not boil or the custard will curdle. Pour it into a bowl, add candied ginger and leave to cool. Stir in cream and chill in refrigerator until very cold.
Freeze the mixture in a churn freezer until stiff. The ice cream can be stored in the freezer up to 2 months. Let it soften an hour in the refrigerator before serving.