Cooks breathe a collective sigh of relief at the height of summer. All the luscious fruits and vegetables we’ve been craving for months are at their peak, and nobody wants or expects you to spend all day in the kitchen wrestling with them.
Nor do summer ingredients need it. This time of year, the best cooking is all about ease and simplicity, leaving you more time to enjoy the results of your (minimal) labor — preferably outside in the shade, sipping a cool drink.
To help you do just that, here is a guide to the ingredients you can turn to all summer long. Think of it as your tool kit. It will suggest flavor combinations that you can apply to everything from chilled blender soups to spiced nuts. And it will give you the freedom to create your own memorable dishes.
Just bear in mind that when it comes to summer cooking, less is more.
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USE HERBS AND SPICES WITH AN OPEN HAND
Gremolata: Sprinkle this pungent herb mix on grilled, roasted or steamed anything as a garnish; stir into pasta and potato salads; use to top dips like hummus or avocado. Here is the basic formula: 1 cup herbs + 2 tablespoons garlic or onion + 1 tablespoon grated citrus or ginger. For a classic gremolata, use parsley, garlic and lemon zest. For something Mediterranean, use mint, shallot and orange zest. For a gremolata with Asian flavors, try cilantro, scallion and grated ginger.
Dukkah: Traditionally, you put the spiced and pulverized nut mix called dukkah in a bowl next to a bowl of olive oil, and use it for dunking bread (first in the oil, then in the dukkah). But it’s also brilliant and surprising as a garnish for cool summer soups and grilled meats and fish.
Use a mortar and pestle to lightly crush: ½ cup toasted nuts (hazelnuts, cashews, pistachios, almonds, peanuts or a combination), ¼ cup toasted sesame seeds, 3 tablespoons coriander seed, 2 tablespoons cumin seed, 1 tablespoon black peppercorns, 1 teaspoon dried herbs (oregano, mint, cilantro) and ½ teaspoon salt.
Spice rubs: Pat this on meat, chicken or fish at least 15 minutes or up to 1 day before grilling.
In a jar, shake together: ¼ cup coarse kosher salt; ¼ cup light brown sugar, coconut sugar or maple sugar, 2 tablespoons paprika or curry powder and 1 tablespoon spicy powder of choice (chili powder, piment d’Espelette, hot smoked paprika or a combination of garlic and onion powder).
LAYER TEXTURE INTO SALADS
In summer, salad is often the main event, so take care in your combinations. Add something crisp, something juicy, something rich and something unexpected to the bowl, top lightly with your preferred dressing and toss gently.
For example, combine:
Blanched green beans + watermelon + feta + pistachios.
Arugula + nectarine + avocado or mozzarella + dukkah or sesame seeds.
Cucumber + cherry tomatoes + crumbled bacon + pickled peppers.
Sure, the following dressings will cloak your salads in style. But they do more than just that. Use them as sauces for grilled meats, fish and vegetables; pour them over pasta and grains or sliced cabbage for picnic-friendly side dishes, or use them as dips for bread or vegetables.
Olive oil + acid (lemon or lime juice, or vinegar) + mustard + salt.
Peanut oil + soy sauce + sesame oil + rice wine vinegar.
Coconut oil + lime zest and juice + hot sauce + salt.
Buttermilk + herbs + mayo + lemon juice.
Yogurt + mashed garlic + herbs + salt.
PURÉE FRUITS OR VEGETABLES INTO COOLING SOUPS
Making a blender soup is like making a smoothie: You need just enough liquid to keep things moving without diluting the flavors. Here’s our basic formula, which you can alter to taste: 3 cups chopped vegetables + 1 to 2 cups liquid (add it slowly; the amount depends on how thick you like your soup and how watery your vegetables are) + a few ice cubes + aromatics (garlic, ginger, scallion, onion, herbs or a combination). No matter what liquid you use, you may need to add water to thin it down. Season with salt or pepper (or both) and other spices. If you like, also add a drizzle of olive oil and a dash of lemon or lime juice, or vinegar.
Combinations to try:
Cantaloupe + sheep’s milk yogurt + jalapeño + toasted cumin seeds + lemon juice.
Cucumber + yogurt + basil + garlic + olive oil.
Cooked beets + buttermilk + red wine vinegar + dill.
Tomato and cucumber + water + miso + scallion + garlic + cilantro.
ADD BIG FLAVORS TO SIDES AS IF THEY’RE THE STARS
There’s a reason this salad is the king of summer picnics: It travels well, it only improves if you make it ahead and everyone loves it. Add boiled, cutup potatoes and salt to the following combinations:
Bacon and bacon grease + mustard + red onion + cider vinegar + dill = German potato salad.
Pomegranate molasses + olive oil + garlic + lemon juice + mint or parsley, or both + toasted coriander seeds = Middle Eastern-style.
Buttermilk + basil and tarragon + anchovy + garlic = green goddess.
You can turn any grain into a satisfying salad. For the best flavor, dress the grains while they are warm, but don’t toss in herbs, fruits or vegetables until the grains have cooled. Add olive oil, lemon or lime juice (or vinegar) and salt to these ingredients:
Farro + cubed cantaloupe + cucumber + mint + ricotta salata.
Quinoa + cherry tomatoes + chives + almonds + dried apricots.
Rice + olives + avocado + corn + roasted red peppers.