When we sit down to eat this time of year, we should toast farmers rather than cooks. They’ve done the heavy lifting, and their produce, in all its ripe glory, allows us home cooks to do so little and get so much in return. Since I prefer dishes that require minimal effort, summer is my favorite time to be in the kitchen.
Like all things that come and go, summer produce is best celebrated at its peak. Which is right now.
My beloved of-the-moment ingredients, from juicy tomatoes to fistfuls of soft herbs, invite you to go in so many directions. Whether you bake muffins studded with nectarines, or marinate tomatoes with lots of garlic and red pepper flakes (and whether you toss the tomatoes with pasta or use them as a bed for grilled fish), the recipes that follow put the bounty front and center. They also offer variations, so those muffins can be made with cherries and almonds, or even be vegan and gluten-free. For the tomatoes, you can swap garlic for ginger, vinegar for fish sauce and basil for cilantro. The effect is something completely different, while the method is exactly the same (and so easy, to boot). How about that?
A bit more about the Garlicky Marinated Tomatoes. While you never cook the tomatoes, warming the garlic and red pepper flakes in oil makes all the difference. That bit of heat allows the flavors to bloom and take over. The tomatoes then sit in the slightly warm bath until they relax back to room temperature. Combined with the natural juices, plus fresh herbs, the ethereal mixture tastes far more complex than it was to prepare. Then, use the tomatoes on any- and everything. Turn them into a rustic pasta sauce. Top them with grilled fish, chicken, shrimp or eggs (poached ones are particularly nice). Or use them as the topper, crowning grilled bread, sliced mozzarella or crumbled goat cheese. You can even blend leftovers with a chopped onion and a pepper and then chill it down for an easy gazpacho.
And then we have sweet corn.
My main idea is Crispy, Smoky Skillet Corn, inspired by an old recipe in Lee Bailey’s seminal cookbook “Country Weekends.” Lee had you cut the kernels from the cobs, scrape the milky liquid, mix the whole lot with flour and bake it in a hot cast-iron skillet. I use cornmeal in place of flour to keep the flavor at full volume (bonus: it keeps the side dish gluten-free, if that’s important to you) and cook it in a skillet on my outdoor grill. Anything to keep the oven off, if possible. Plus, you get all that wonderful smoke flavor. The result is a crumbly corn cake that’s so crisp on the bottom and tender on top; the combination is simply heaven.
One variation is to grate the corn rather than slice off the kernels. It’s a bit of a job, but the result is a creamy mixture almost like a corn pudding or spoon bread. The final variation forgoes cooking altogether: You leave the kernels raw and toss them with a spicy mixture of pickled jalapeños and their brine, along with fresh cilantro and lime juice. Try this on top of grilled steak or a baked sweet potato.
Every so often, the oven is worth turning on. Try baking Nectarine Corn Muffins first thing in the morning — you can make the batter the previous night — before the heat of the day kicks in. Not only will this be kinder to your air conditioning, but you’ll also have the most tender muffins in time for your coffee. The batter is incredibly simple and holds any soft fruit beautifully. The vegan, gluten-free variation works just as well. If you want to skip baking all together, slice your ripe stone fruits and put them in the bottom of your wine glasses before topping with ice-cold rosé or white wine. The time of day is unimportant.
Soft herbs are irresistible in summer, whether you grow them in your yard or a window box, or pick them up by the armful at the farmers market. I’m talking Italian parsley, basil, mint, chives, tarragon, cilantro and chervil. I love using them in large quantities in just about everything, including a brown rice salad studded with almonds and raisins, rich pestos and creamy salad dressings.
Last, there’s summer squash, which even has “summer” in its name. It’s one of the most versatile items I know, and I think it’s often underrated. Grate it into simple fritters that turn golden and crisp, and you’ve got just the thing to go with your evening cocktail. Or grill the squash and top it with crunchy pistachios and fragrant mint.
Or do what I do nearly every night: Slice it thin, toss it with olive oil and lemon, sprinkle it with salt and parsley and add a bit of shaved Parmesan. A knife, a board and a bowl are all you need. It’s perfect with a piece of chicken or a hot dog off the grill, alongside eggs in the morning, or on its own in a bowl on a porch with an iced tea nearby, condensation dripping down the outside of the glass.
From my kitchen to yours, it’s summer.
Turshen, a cookbook author and recipe developer, will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.
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