I have deliciously mixed feelings about summer cooking. On the one hand, summer is so relaxed, and its straightforward flavors so satisfying, that it hardly seems worth doing anything as elaborate as cooking in any formal sense. Instead, we eat what’s around and what’s around is almost invariably delicious. I can’t tell you how many time in the past week dinner around here has been a piece of meat or a couple of sausages tossed on the grill, a few ears of corn on the cob, and something else made from the farm share. That something else might be some cole slaw or it might be some blanched green beans tossed with olive oil, pine nuts and few slivers of roasted red pepper or, lately, it’s often sliced tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and salted. The biggest decision of the night is whether to put basil on the tomatoes or not and we are, without fail, very happy.
Like, I’m sure more than half of the food-obsessed American public, I eagerly bookmarked Mark Bittman’s 101 Simple Meals a couple of weeks ago, then printed it out and stuck it in the kitchen bulletin board as a source of inspiration. The popular response to Bittman’s article seems to indicate that I’m not alone in my pleasure in simple summer cooking.
On the other hand . . . it’s so damn, well, bountiful, right now, and fresh ingredients are almost endless, and I think I should be stretching a little and seeing just what can be made out of all this summery possibility. After all, if we can invest hour after cold hour in braising and stewing flavor into humble winter ingredients, don’t their more glamorous summer cousins deserve a little love too?
This week, I guess because it was my birthday week, I got to have it all. There was corn on the cob and corn a la Shana. There was a little bucatini tossed with quick simmered Juliet tomatoes and olive-oil saute-ed yellow zucchini. Yes, there were sausages on the grill. And then there was my birthday dinner.
In brief, John was very good to me and planned and pulled together a dinner that was elegant and innovative and that featured bright bursts of summer tastes. And he only got desperate once or twice and asked me to chop. Any meal that involves firing up the grill twice in one day gets an A for effort from me. But really, he made it seem effortless.
The menu went like this: We started with grilled and marinated scallop ceviche. We were both a little skeptical about the departure from conventional raw fish cooked in acidic liquid, but the grilling added a really nice smoky touch. With this, we drank part of a bottle of prosecco (see below for where the other part went).
After the ceviche, there were lamb chops from the rack, cooked scotta ditto style with an insalata tricolere (radiccio, endive, and arugula) — the salad was briefly saute-ed and then wilted under the heat of the chops. there was also a dish of creamy mashed potatoes, rich with sage and white cheddar, that soothed all the wild flavors of the lamb and salad. A very nice dinner a deux dish as the cooking time was only about 6 minutes. The coals got going while we ate the first course, then it was only a slight break while the chops actually cooked. The flavor of basil is brilliant in this marinade. If the food is cooked efficiently and eaten slowly, the whole enterprise takes about the time it takes to drink a very nice bottle of Brunello, with a swallow left over for the cheese course.
We paused for a palate-clearing grapefruit-champagne sorbet (thank you once again David Lebovitz). I have to admit that our romantic dinner was punctuated by “has it been three minutes yet?” and “did you remember to churn?” and that an ice cream maker on the table isn’t all that elegant, but the cold and lovely shock of the sorbet right out of the freezer was more than worth it.
Then we nibbled on two cheeses from Morgan and York; a local organic chevre that was tangy and nicely textured and a triple creme something or other that was indeed triply creamy. And then we were way full, with room only for two perfect Sweet Gem truffles and a wee glass of cognac. (The meal from start to finish minus truffles can be seen here.)
It all tasted wonderful and it was even more wonderful that it was all made for me, and it was extra wonderful to return to tonight’s dinner of a simple salad of melon and prosciutto and a few greens with a glass of wine.
Nick gave me an extra birthday present by, the next day, swiping my cracker with leftover goat cheese, popping it in his mouth and looking at me with delighted surprise. “Mama!” he exclaimed. “Good!” Indeed, it was.
F. Scott Fitzgerald says that “The mark of a first rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” By that measure, holding in mind that summer offers both the simplest and most complex pleasures, I’m doing just fine.