Speaking of summer weather, or weren’t we? I pronounce it “exceedingly hot and humid.” While that’s not true of everywhere, of course, I know many people who would emphatically answer yes when asked, “Hot enough for you?” And emphatically no when asked, “Are you going to cook?” Some won’t even turn on the oven or boil a pot of water from June to October.
My friends, cooking in the heat, summertime or not, is part of being a cook. Embrace it. People the world around routinely cook in hot climates every day. Even if you do all your cooking outdoors, you won’t escape without breaking a sweat.
There are strategies to summer cooking. Early morning, before the day heats up, is a good time to get a head start on dinner. And if you can cook today for tomorrow — in the cool of the evening, perhaps? — so much the better. The recipes in this month’s menu can all be prepared a day in advance, though it is certainly not required.
It’s hard not to wax prosaic when you hit the farmers’ market right now. Drop-dead gorgeous fruits and vegetables, bursting forth in every color — be still my heart. Fine, fat and glistening eggplants, check! Ripe tomatoes in every size — to cry for! Runner beans and green beans and fresh shell beans. Peak berries and particularly swoonworthy stone fruit. I’m breathless. Make dinner with that kind of flavorful haul, indoors or out, today or tomorrow, and how can you lose?
With the eggplant, make a smoky spread, flecked with cumin, to smear on flatbread. The first step of the process is fun: You get to burn the heck out of the eggplant. Place them directly on hot coals or in the flames of gas burner, turning, until they are completely blackened. The inside flesh will have steamed to softness, then it’s just a matter of scraping away the charred skin and mashing the tender, smoke-tinged innards with aromatics, garlic, tahini, lemon and olive oil.
Serve a bright tomato salad to serve alongside. As I learned from a friend in Istanbul, pomegranate molasses, sumac and toasted walnuts really lend spark to the tomatoes. Or spread shards of warm pita or lavash with the smoky eggplant and top with tomato, if you wish. It’s casual.
At the Santa Monica farmers’ market, several stands sell farm-raised meat as a small sideline. From one, I picked up a boneless lamb shoulder, which I knew would braise to succulence if cooked slowly for three hours or so. I would do it either in a covered grill over indirect heat or inside in a slow oven.
Then, the plan was to tear the meat into strips and combine it with beautiful green and yellow runner beans and some of the braising liquor. And to shower it all with lots of refreshing chopped dill, mint and parsley. It’s a combination so winning that I chopped the same herbs to garnish the eggplant and tomatoes, too, and served everything together.
Dessert for this meal is all about stone fruit, melon and berries. A chopped fruit salad, if you will, or a compote. (In times past, a dish like this was called a Macedonia.) The trick is to do a little more than just macerate the fruits. Instead, dilute a little homemade jam with a splash of wine or liqueur for them to sit in. You’ll add very little sugar, if you use it all. Serve chilled. It’s just the thing on a hot summer day or evening, especially if there’s a breeze. That, and another glass of rosé.