Probably the best thing about summer cooking is that it takes so little to make something wonderful.
Think about it.
Winter revolves around generating heat, warming yourself over the hot oven, roasting tubers and boiling soups, glutting on fat and starch and heavy cream.
Chicago’s long, ragged season of frost lasts for nearly six months and the summers are short, and often brutally hot and humid.
I don’t want to bother with an oven right now. So, it’s a good thing I have a long, varied playlist of salads in my mental repertoire. I am so good at combining raw vegetables and fruits that I even considered becoming a raw vegan at one point! Seriously. And with all this juicy, summertime produce laying around, why bother messing with perfection?
I think a nice Caprese salad is just about one of the best things ever thought up by the human mind. Shakespeare? Meh, I could take it or leave it, but bring on the Caprese!
All you really need to make a delicious caprese salad are the following ingredients:
Really good heirloom tomatoes, bright red and at their peak of ripeness.
Really good mozzarella, not the spongy, block kind of processed mozarella, but real, honest-to-goodness, soft mozzarella packed in brine.
Really good basil, I prefer large leaves, deep green and fragrant.
Really good olive oil, extra virgin, preferably cold pressed, with a lovely greenish-yellow sheen and a buttery flavor.
(P.S. Spectrum makes the best olive oil I’ve ever tasted in my life).
Cut the tomatoes and the mozzarella in thick, hearty slices. Alternate tomato slices with basil leaves, then mozzarella slices. Sprinkle with sea salt and coarse black pepper and drizzle with olive oil.
I think the best way to enjoy caprese is while reclining, on a beach, or in a hammock or the sunny greenery of your own backyard.
Crisp and refreshing, those are the words I want to describe every meal I make from now until September.
I’ve lost my appetite for just about anything heated, as I sit in my sweltering living room and try to survive the 90 degree temps without air conditioning.
It’s salads and sandwiches for us, with maybe a popsicle or two for good measure.
When I think of cool and refreshing summer dishes, I think a nice, chilled cucumber and mint soup.
How can you go wrong? Not only is it fast to whip up, it tastes like something you spent all day slaving over. Big on flavor, low on labor. That’s my favorite kind of summer “cooking.”
Chilled Cucumber Soup
2 large English cucumbers (the long, thin variety)
1/4 small red onion
6oz fresh mint
1 cup chilled water
Juice of 1 lemon
Sea salt to taste
Dollop of yogurt
Peel and de-seed cucumbers, cut into 1/2 inch chunks. Set aside in large bowl. Dice onions and add to cucumbers. Roughly chop the mint and add to cucumbers. Pour water and lemon juice into large blender, add about 1/4 of the cuke mixture. Blend until only slightly chunky. Keep adding cucumber/onion/mint mixture until all is finely blended. I like a slightly pulpy texture to the final product. Add sea salt to taste (I put in about 1/2 tsp).
Top with a dollop of yogurt.
You can whip this up and serve as a refreshing appetizer for your BBQ or your cocktail party.
There’s no way you can eat this and not feel refreshed.
I wouldn’t say I’m a particularly patriotic person, but every year I tend to find myself participating in a get together of one sort or another on the Fourth of July. Where I grew up, in Phoenix, Arizona, fireworks did not happen every summer because of the risk of brush fires. Then, in college I moved to a mountain town in Northern AZ where the entire area surrounding the city was liable to spontaneously combust at the mere mention of an open flame.
It wasn’t until last year, when I moved to Chicago that fireworks were back on the table, in a big way. We live right next to a park that literally crackles and sizzles with the sounds of explosives for the entire holiday weekend, and rather than find that annoying I think it’s great. I think it’s great that once a year it’s entirely acceptable to set off explosives in a public park.
So, with the sounds of whizzing cherry bombs infiltrating my kitchen, I decided to make a French cake and top it with strawberries and blueberries. “Why not pay homage to the contributions the French have made to American culture,” I thought. (Well actually, I got the berries because they were on sale and they looked so sweet and delicious, and the french cake has been on my baking set list for a while now.)
I could have made biscuit-like shortcakes instead, but this moist, citrus-y cake evokes something a little more elegant.
I can not and will not take any credit for the cake recipe. It unabashedly comes from Molly Wizenberg, author of “Orangette” one of my favorite food blogs. The only tweeks I made were adding valencia orange zest, vanilla, and baking it in a loaf pan as opposed to a 9X9 round, cake pan.
French Yogurt Cake
1 1/2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp lemon zest
1 tsp valencia orange zest
1/2 cup yogurt
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup lemon and orange juice
1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar
Heat oven to 350. Whisk flour, baking powder, salt and zest until just incorporated.
In a large bowl, mix yogurt, sugar, eggs and vanilla until smooth. Slowly fold in flour until a creamy batter.
Lastly, add in the oil and mix thoroughly until smooth. Pour batter into an oiled and floured loaf or cake pan. Bake for 25-35 mins until a toothpick comes out clean from the center. When done, transfer to a rack and drizzle the syrup over the warm cake.
For the fruit topping, I simply rinsed the berries, quartered the strawberries and tossed with a bit of the juice and about 2 TBSP of confectioner’s sugar. Let the berries sit in the fridge for an hour or two so the juice from the berries can pool at the bottom of the bowl.
I topped mine with hand-whipped cream. For that, I pour the cream into a chilled bowl, add a few TBSP of confectioner’s sugar and a drop of vanilla and beat until stiff.
I’m certainly not a nationalistic type, but I have to thank the French for their cake recipe. I intend to devour every bite under a sky of sparklers.