This is the time of year when my refrigerator is bursting with fresh, local produce. For these few weeks of mid-summer when the market is at its peak (and it's just too hot to cook too much) it is rare that I pull out a recipe to cook dinner. Summer ingredients cook so rapidly, and tend to go together so well, that meals practically make themselves. With the addition of an egg or a little cheese, I can quickly and easily have a satisfying meal on the table that doesn't involve a trip to the store to pick up some meat or some fish. As hot as we have been (according to the meteorologists we have been under a "heat dome") I'm not in the mood for a lot of animal protein anyway. Today I thought I would share three of the light summer meals that we enjoyed last week in the hopes that they will provide a bit of inspiration for your evening meals during these dog days of summer. If you shop at the farmers' market, you will probably have all of these ingredients on hand already.
We started out the week with salad. If you have ever taken one of my salad classes—summer or winter—you probably know that to me a salad doesn't necessarily mean lettuce. It can of course include lettuce, but I'm much more interested in salads that are loaded with lots of interesting and substantial ingredients—vegetables, fruits, nuts, olives, cheeses, etc. A salad should be about contrasts in textures and tastes. What makes it a "salad" is not the lettuce, but that everything in it is held together by the unifying presence of a flavorful and complimentary vinaigrette or dressing.
This time of year, the fact that I don't need lettuce to make a salad is usually a good thing...local lettuces are pretty much non-existent. But last week I spotted a display of baskets of beautiful tiny shoots of leaf lettuce. I couldn't resist them.
Even though they looked like the delicate lettuces of Spring, in reality they were substantial and full of flavor. They made a refreshing, almost daily appearance on our table over the course of the week. You can of course purchase lettuce from the grocery store at any time during the year. I'm just not in the habit of buying any produce from the grocery store during the summer, because I usually have more vegetables than I can use just from my weekly trip to the farmers' market.
These beautiful little lettuces made their first appearance in a salad that featured corn and green beans. I roasted the corn and tossed it with some blanched green beans, a few Kalamata olives and a classic vinaigrette of red wine vinegar (1 T.), Dijon mustard (~1 t.), diced shallot (1 small) and olive oil (3 T.). All of this was placed on top of a bed of the lettuces dressed with the same vinaigrette. The presence of the green beans and olives made me think of Salade Niçoise (something that has been on my mind lately anyway) so I finished the plate with vine ripe tomato wedges and some hard cooked eggs. It was delicious!
The corn is abundant and sweet right now. I look forward to corn season every year....and we eat a lot of corn during July and August... so much that I'm surprised that I don't start to look "corn fed". Most of the corn that we eat gets roasted before going into a salad like the one I just described or into a side dish. Last year I wrote a post on how to roast corn and included a recipe for one of my favorite roasted corn and tomato salads (as well as a few variations). By itself, a roasted corn and tomato salad makes a light and refreshing lunch. But, as noted in last year's post, with the addition of a wedge of cheese and some bread or a simple quesadilla, it makes a nice summer dinner.
Not all of the corn we eat this time of year is roasted. Corn is also very good when it is sautéed. We enjoyed the combination of the corn and green beans so much in the salad that a few days later I thought I would use the same combination in a summer sauté. Instead of using olives and vinaigrette to add interest and zip I used a base of caramelized summer onions. (Summer onions are sweet and juicy and add an amazing amount of flavor.) While I was gathering my ingredients I ran into the zucchini in the produce drawer and remembered how nice it was in a very similar sauté that I posted last summer...so I decided to add some zucchini to the mix. I served the sauté that I posted last year with some basil butter-baked salmon and roasted cherry tomatoes. The sauté I made last week was accompanied by sliced heirloom tomatoes and the aforementioned cheese quesadillas.
To prepare the sauté: Dice the onions and cook them in a generous amount of olive oil until they are softened and beginning to caramelized. While the onions cook, cut the corn off of the cob (don't forget to scrape the cobs with the back of your knife after the kernels have been cut away—this time of year the corn "scrapings" are abundant), dice up some zucchini, put a pot of water on to boil and trim and cut some green beans into short little half-inch lengths. When the onions are tender and golden, add the zucchini and cook until it is almost tender and beginning to take on some golden color. Add the corn (reserving the scrapings to add toward the end) along with a generous pinch of salt. At the same time, drop the green beans into the boiling salted water. When the corn is tender, add the scrapings and cook a minute or two more. Remove the pan from the heat. When the green beans are cooked the way you like, drain them and add to the pan of sautéed vegetables. Toss everything together, adding more olive oil if the vegetables seem dry. Taste and correct the seasoning with salt and freshly ground pepper (I think sweet corn loves lots of pepper).
The beautiful salad greens from the market made another appearance later in the week alongside a fresh tomato and zucchini pizza. I mentioned earlier that I didn't like plain lettuce salads, but this isn't strictly true. I really do enjoy a small fluff of dressed greens when it is served as an accompaniment to something else. Dressed with the remainder of the mustardy vinaigrette that went into the corn and green bean salad, they were just right with a few slices of pizza.
If it seems odd that I would fire up the oven to make pizza during the hottest stretch of the year so far, I should explain that my oven doesn't seem to heat up the house too much. In this, I realize that I am fortunate. If turning your oven on at a temperature of 500° will heat up your house too much, then this last meal is probably one you will want to wait to make until the weather cools off a bit. There will still be abundant tomatoes and zucchini into September (when it will be much cooler).
I love homemade pizza...almost as much as I love pasta. It is easy to improvise pizza toppings as long as you keep in mind a couple of basic rules. I think I have mentioned these "rules" in every post I have written about pizza, but it doesn't hurt to repeat them: Always remember to use a light hand with the toppings (so you can see the occasional patch of crust—or tomato sauce if you are using tomato sauce—through the toppings).
And only put things on your pizza that are already cooked or that will cook in the 10 to 15 minutes that the pizza will be in the oven without throwing off abundant quantities of moisture. If you remember these two things, you can make pizza with just about anything in your produce bin....even something as surprising as kale and potatoes.
To make a fresh tomato pizza, prepare the tomatoes as described for the rustic tomato tart that I posted a week ago: Spread the sliced tomatoes on paper towels and sprinkle with salt. After 10 to 20 minutes, blot up the water that has beaded on the surface of the tomatoes. For a 12- to 13-inch pizza you will need about a half pound of tomatoes...maybe slightly less. While the tomatoes sit, slice some zucchini (about half a pound) on a long diagonal in 1/3-inch thick slices. Spread on a baking sheet, brush both sides with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Broil until tender and golden, turning once. If you have a grill, you can grill the zucchini instead of broiling it. Let cool.
To build the pizza, smash a small clove of garlic to a purée with a pinch of salt and add to a tablespoon of olive oil. Roll out the crust, place in a pizza pan dusted with flour, cornmeal or semolina and spread with the olive oil and garlic mixture. Scatter a pinch of hot pepper flakes over the oil. Next add a layer of coarsely grated Fontina (or another good melting cheese like low-moisture Mozzarella, Monterey Jack, or Provolone)—2 to 3 oz. is about right. Top with a layer of the zucchini and then the blotted tomatoes. Scatter another couple of ounces of Fontina mixed with a few tablespoons of Parmesan or Pecorino over all.
Bake on a preheated pizza stone in a preheated 500° oven until the bottom of the crust is browned and the cheese is bubbling and golden—about 12 to 15 minutes. When I bake a pizza, I always slide it off of the pizza pan, directly onto the pizza stone, as soon as the crust is set (after five minutes or so in the oven). This will insure a crisp, well-baked crust. Serve immediately.
Obviously this pizza, like the salad and the sauté, can be varied in accordance with whatever you happen to have in your produce drawer. In about a month, the market will be full of eggplant and ripe bell peppers (in addition to the summer squash and tomatoes). Both of these things would be wonderful on a pizza. Or in a quick vegetable sauté... Or in a roasted vegetable salad....