Cooking up satisfying fare without breaking a sweat
Need a reason to celebrate and invite a few friends over for dinner? Well, it is summer isn't it? Enough reason in my book to celebrate. Having been reared in brutal Midwestern winters, I love summer—blast furnace weather and all. But fixing dinner for family or entertaining friends when it's 100 degrees outside I know can be daunting.
For one thing, most of us are trying to keep our a/c bills to a minimum, not heat up the house even more. You can always fix sandwiches, I suppose, but that's kind of boring unless you are layering on exotic ingredients. Barbecuing is an option. After all, you can prepare every course of a meal on the outside grill if you so desire. But then that means someone has the less-than-envious job of standing over it to tend to the food. Great on an 85-degree day; not so much when it's 105!
Unlike the more structured entertaining the winter months and holidays seem to demand, I think summer entertaining should be relaxed, spontaneous, and light-hearted. And the food should be fresh and inviting. It doesn't matter if you love to cook or not, you can still impress and satisfy without turning on the oven.
I tend to opt for cold or room temperature dishes, or ones that can be made ahead to keep last-minute cooking to a minimum. If some cooking is required, I try to do it the night before or early in the morning when it's cooler. Then reheat on a low burner or in the microwave just before serving. I also avoid baking at this time of year, choosing to serve yummy cold desserts instead.
Wednesday nights are Bridge night for me and some of my friends. We rotate homes every week and start the evening off with dinner. Sometimes the guys in the group will grill when it's at their house, but grilling is not something I do often or particularly well. So when I host at this time of year, I like to start with a first course of cold soup, like Chilled Corn Soup with a red pepper and scallion relish or Spanish-style Gazpacho with fresh tomatoes, cucumber, peppers, and dill. The soups are refreshing and take advantage of the summer's bounty of super fresh vegetables.
Then I often follow that with a main course salad. Most of the time, I improvise the recipe after I see what interesting items are available at my local market, like already grilled salmon, steak, or chicken. Since it's for salad, I buy something that has already been cooked and refrigerated. On my kitchen's center island, I set up a salad bar of sorts. There is a large bowl filled with a mixture of salad greens, surrounded by small bowls of toppings and pitchers of salad dressings so guests can customize it. Entrée salads are also a great way to use up leftovers, like grilled meat and vegetables. And because it's not your only ingredient, you only need about half as much of the protein as you would if you were serving it as an entrée, so it's still economical to purchase.
One of the Bridge group's favorites is Mexican Chopped Salad with spicy chicken. I mix together shredded iceberg and romaine lettuces with fresh cilantro leaves, and offer cooked black or pinto beans, sweet corn kernels, grape tomatoes, avocado, chopped peppers, queso fresco or feta cheese, and a Southwestern-style dressing. What makes this recipe so unique is the chicken preparation. Instead of just plain, sliced chicken breast, you sauté onion and garlic, then add cooked chicken with some seasonings and chicken stock. The chicken is served warm, but can be made ahead and reheated.
Last night for Bridge I went a different direction. I made Summer Pasta, another summertime favorite of mine. The no-cook pasta sauce is comprised of canned diced tomatoes, green onion, garlic, olive oil, feta cheese, and fresh oregano and basil, which is assembled earlier in the day and set out at room temperature. When time to eat, the pasta gets cooked in a few minutes, drained, then tossed with the sauce. A little more feta and basil on top, and it's ready to go and always a hit.
I often pair this dish with something grilled, like lamb chops. This time I served it alongside simple shrimp scampi, but it also makes a great side dish with my recipe for Cold Poached Salmon with Cool Cucumber Dill Sauce. The poaching liquid gets heated in the microwave. After the salmon cooks, you remove it, let it cool, then refrigerate for several hours or overnight.
And let's not forget dessert. Pina Colada Mousse, Frozen Amaretto Pie, and Lemon Panna Cotta with Blueberry Sauce are desserts that must be made a day ahead, then refrigerated or frozen—another delicious way to beat the heat.
The recipes not found on the next few pages, can be found at planoprofile.com. If you haven't already checked out our website, you are really missing out. Every month there are extra features to view, as well as recipes not published in the magazine. Also, you'll find recipes galore in our archives, including more little or no-cook ones for your summer enjoyment. Like cold potato-leek soup, steakhouse salad, and grilled vegetable sandwiches featured in the August 2011 issue and tuna and bean salad featured in January 2012. Recipes that surely will make your summer entertaining a breeze!
Barbara Walch is Plano Profile's food editor, and is a member of
the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP).