A back porch is the place for shucking corn, cranking ice cream, sipping lemonade, digging into wedges of fruit pie -- and eating warm weather-inspired suppers.
Summer suppers enjoyed on the porch are typically hearty, casual -- and a relaxing way of enjoying the Labor Day Weekend while avoiding the hustle and bustle of the season's last celebration.
Back-porch food is substantial, and often wildly flavored and spiced to recharge the appetite lost during hot weather. This is the time to make full use of local produce, to wind fresh herbs through salads, and construct simple desserts out of things such as peaches, plums and blackberries.
Working your way through the porch supper set forth here, you will find that the cook is spared any last-minute scramble at the stove. A spicy fried chicken and beer-poached shrimp -- far from delicate tasting -- are the seasoned main dishes of a meal that can be prepared completely ahead to the point of serving. The chicken is delicious served with a dipping sauce made from sour cream and pure'ed avocados; the sauce is a nice diversion from the peppery chicken.
Along with the chicken and shrimp are a tangy potato-corn salad and tomato relish. The relish is one of those uncooked, quick-from-scratch little side dishes that tastes fresh and bright. Buttermilk biscuits, stamped out with a heart-shaped cutter, and served warm with the meal are satisfying and charming to look at.
For dessert, there is an unpretentious but toothsome bake of ripe peaches sitting under a golden layer of nuts, sugar, butter and spices. The dessert, which I call a "crumble," is similar to a "crunch" or "crisp" and can be made with blackberries, black raspberries, nectarines or plums. HOT AND SPICY CHICKEN (6 servings)
Here, a light flour and cornmeal mixture -- sparked with cumin, chile powder, freshly ground black pepper, cayenne, salt and herbs -- is used as the spicy cloak for an assortment of chicken parts. The cornmeal absorbs the flavorings nicely and gives the chicken an interesting textural crunch. This chicken may be accompanied by a light, cooling, dip-like sauce, such as the one based on sour cream and pure'ed avocados that follows.
Pure, fresh soybean oil for deep-frying
2/3 cup yellow cornmeal
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tablespoons cumin
1 1/2 tablespoons chile powder
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
5 pounds chicken parts (choose from breasts, legs, thighs, and wings)
Pour enough soybean oil in a large, deep kettle or deep-fat fryer to reach a depth of about 2 1/3 inches. Set over high heat and bring the oil to 350 degrees, using a deep-fry thermometer to gauge the temperature.
Combine the cornmeal, flour, cumin, chile powder, black pepper, cayenne, salt, oregano and thyme in a large bowl. A batch at a time, dredge as much chicken in the cornmeal mixture as will comfortably fit in the hot oil in one layer without crowding. Add the chicken, then regulate the heat to return to 325 degrees. Fry the breasts in a separate batch from the legs, wings and thighs; fry breasts for about 10 to 12 minutes or until golden and cooked through, turning them from time to time with a pair of tongs. Fry the wings, thighs, and legs for about 12 to 15 minutes (dark meat requires longer cooking), turning them frequently until golden brown all over and cooked through.
Remove the chicken parts to a baking dish lined with paper toweling. Let the chicken drain for 2 minutes, then remove the pieces to a metal cooling rack.
Serve the chicken warm, tepid or at cool room temperature, heaped onto a colorful serving platter.
Serving note: This fried chicken may be accompanied by an avocado-sour cream dip. About 1/2 hour before serving, blend together 2 pure'ed ripe avocados, 1 cup sour cream, 1/4 cup chopped onion, 1/4 cup chopped ripe tomato, 1/2 teaspoon minced fresh jalapen~o pepper, 3 tablespoons minced fresh coriander and salt and pepper to taste.
SHRIMP POACHED IN BEER (6 servings)
This is a no-frills approach for cooking fresh shrimp -- to simply swamp them in a poaching liquid built on beer and a range of spices; let them cook briefly in the liquid, then keep them, off the heat, in the solution for an hour to develop the flavor of the spices. Out of the poaching liquid, the shrimp are good hot, warm, tepid or cool; they are most at home when served, crab-house-style, on a plate lined with several thicknesses of grease-proof paper.
4 12-ounce bottles of beer
2 tablespoons pickling spice
1 bay leaf, preferably imported, crumbled
8 whole allspice berries
8 whole cloves
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/4 cup celery leaves (the leafy tops of celery stalks)
5 parsley stems
12 whole black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon coarse (kosher) salt
2 pounds fresh shrimp (20 to 25 count per pound)
Combine the beer, pickling spice, crumbled bay leaf, allspice berries, cloves, red pepper, celery leaves, parsley stems, black peppercorns and coarse salt in a large non-corrosive casserole or steamer pot. Bring the contents of the pot to a boil over moderately high heat, add the shrimp, stir and simmer for 30 seconds. Remove the pot from the heat and let cool for 1 hour.
Drain the shrimp in a non-corrosive colander. Discard the celery leaf tops and parsley stems. The other spices look appealing when clinging to the shrimp and as the shrimp are peeled by each eater, the spices can be flicked away along with the shells.
Serve the shrimp warm, tepid, at room temperature, or chilled, tumbled onto a large platter lined with fresh leaves or with a big square of brown paper.
BUTTERMILK BISCUIT HEARTS (Makes about 1 1/2 to 2 dozen heart-shaped biscuits)
These adorable biscuits, freshly baked, are an agreeable addition to any kind of supper that features fried chicken, ham or similar food. The biscuits are enriched with buttermilk, which gives them a moist, cake-like interior.
4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup solid vegetable shortening
1 1/3 cups buttermilk
Thoroughly combine the flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda and cream of tartar in a large mixing bowl. Stir through the sugar. Using 2 round-bladed knives, cut the shortening into the flour until it is reduced to small flakes. Pour over the buttermilk and quickly combine the liquid and dry ingredients with a fork or spatula to form a semi-soft ball of dough. Knead the dough in the bowl for 10 seconds.
Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Pat or roll out to a thickness of about 1 inch. Cut out biscuits using a 2 1/4-inch heart-shaped cutter; place the biscuits about 1 1/2 inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet.
Bake the biscuits on the lower third level of a 425-degree oven for about 15 to 17 minutes or until golden.
Remove the biscuits to a cooling rack with a wide spatula. Pile the biscuits into a napkin-lined basket and serve with sweet butter. (If you are baking the biscuits ahead, rewarm them in an aluminum foil pouch in a 325-degree oven until hot.)
Baking note: To make herb-flavored biscuits, stir 2 tablespoons minced fresh herbs (such as chives or oregano) into the dry ingredients and proceed with the recipe. To make cheese-flavored biscuits, stir 3/4 cup grated firm cheese (such as cheddar) into the dry ingredients and proceed with the recipe.
POTATO-CORN SALAD (6 servings)
Sweet steamed kernels of white corn dot this potato salad, which is bound lightly by a whisking of oil, vinegar and smoked barbecue mustard. The dressing is gently absorbed by the potatoes. This lightened potato salad, free of egg yolk-based mayonnaise, travels exceptionally well and would make a fine contribution to a bring-a-dish dinner.
2 1/2 pounds new potatoes, steamed until tender, peeled if desired
Kernels cut from 4 ears white corn, steamed until tender
2 tablespoons snipped fresh chives
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon malt vinegar
2 tablespoons smoked barbecue mustard (available at specialty food stores and some chain grocery markets)
4 tablespoons safflower oil
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Thickly slice or wedge the warm potatoes. Combine the potatoes, corn, chives and parsley in a large mixing bowl.
In a small bowl, whisk together both vinegars and the mustard; blend in the safflower oil and the olive oil by tablespoons. Pour the dressing over the potato-corn mixture and toss carefully so as not to mangle the potatoes. Season with salt and pepper. (Chill the salad if you are planning to serve it more than 5 hours from the time it was prepared; return the salad to cool room temperature for serving.)
Mound the potato salad on a plate lined with fresh, clean leaves or slender branches of thyme.
TOMATO, ONION AND MINT RELISH (6 servings)
The good taste of this fresh and tingling homemade relish very much depends on using juicy, ruby-red tomatoes ripened on the vine. The relish is an easy blend of tomatoes, onion and garlic sharpened by splashes of lime juice and mellowed with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. This is an enjoyable "table relish" that definitely enhances grilled chicken, pork, shrimp, or lamb.
3 large red, ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
1 red onion, diced
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon tomato paste
Juice of 2 limes
3 tablespoons minced fresh mint leaves
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Combine the diced tomatoes, onion, garlic, tomato paste and lime juice in a mixing bowl. Stir through the mint and blend in the olive oil. Season the tomato mixture with salt and pepper.
This fresh relish will hold at room temperature for 4 to 5 hours, covered loosely with a sheet of plastic wrap.
For serving, turn the relish into a bowl, including any of the juices that may have accumulated. The top of the relish may be decorated with whole sprigs of fresh mint, if you like.
PEACH CRUMBLE (6 servings)
In my kitchen, a "crumble" is any kind of fresh ripe fruit, sliced up and baked under a rough toss of nuts, butter, sugar, flour and spices. The crumbly topping turns golden and crunchy. Anything creamy and vanilla-based would be a welcome plate mate to this fruit dessert, be it ice cream, whipped cream or custard sauce.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened at room temperature, for the baking dish
FOR THE PEACHES:
5 cups peeled, pitted and sliced peaches
1 tablespoon lemon juice
4 tablespoons sugar blended with 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, a pinch ground allspice and 2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
FOR THE CRUMBLE:
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup chopped walnuts
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon chunks, cold
Smear 2 tablespoons softened butter on the inside of a 1 1/2- to 2-quart (2 inches high) round or oval ovenproof gratin dish.
Toss the peaches with the lemon juice and sugar/spice blend; turn the flavored peaches into the buttered dish.
For the crumble: Combine the flour, sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice and walnuts in a large mixing bowl. Scatter over, by the tablespoonful, lumps of butter and reduce it to small bits throughout the flour mixture, using 2 round-bladed knives to cut it in.
Sprinkle the crumble mixture evenly over the top of the peaches. Bake the peaches on the lower third level of a 375-degree oven for 35 minutes or until the crumble topping is golden and peach juices are bubbly.
Serve the peach crumble warm, tepid or at room temperature. (The baked crumble retains the heat of baking for some time.