Summer may be on the wane, but that does not mean the days cannot be hot and lazy.
And on a day that is hot and lazy and languid, what you do not want to do is stand in front of a hot stove all day and cook something heavy and complicated or covered in a rich sauce. You want to make something quick, easy and light. And you want it to be made with the bounty of the season, the best food and produce that nature has to offer.
In some eyes, the apogee of all late-summer foods -- in fact, the highest culinary achievement ever reached by mankind -- is the humble tomato sandwich. It is the perfect example of the virtue of simplicity, the ultimate way to bring out the inherent natural goodness of the ingredients.
If you search the Internet, you will find hundreds of thousands of tomato-sandwich recipes, using everything from basil to tofu to mozzarella to whole-wheat toast.
In the South, where the tomato sandwich was invented and perfected, there is one way to make them and one way only: Sliced ripe tomatoes and sliced sweet onions, salted and peppered and laid on top of mayonnaise-covered Wonder bread. It has to be Wonder bread, which alone offers both the proper sweetness and the quality that serious culinary professionals refer to as "squishiness" to make the best and most balanced sandwich.
Nothing else comes close, nothing else will do -- although actually the basil sounds pretty good. For best results, if at all possible eat the sandwich standing over the kitchen sink. The science is a little shaky on this, but it seems to greatly improve the flavor.
Melissa Clark's Thai-Style Ground Turkey with Chiles and Basil takes a little more effort than a tomato sandwich, but pretty much everything does, and it is even more fulfilling a dish. It is light and zesty, and quick to make. The only thing that takes time is preparing the ingredients, which definitely should be done before you start to cook because the cooking time is so brief.
The result is robustly flavored yet still perfect for a summer's day, with turkey (the chameleon of meats) and Thai spices that cool you down even as -- if you want -- they heat you up. The amount of jalapeno you add is up to you, but it adds a nice bite (and helps produce a sweat) to go along with the salty soy and fish sauces, the assertive ginger, the potent garlic and the cooling buzz of basil.
Clark, who writes for The New York Times, says the dish is "a bit like a sloppy joe, without the tomatoes or bread," and she is right. But it is far more appetizing than that sounds. More important, it is fast, it is healthy and it is delicious.
One of my favorite summertime meals is deceptively simple; it is far more elegant than you would expect from such an easy recipe. In fact, it comes from a onetime four-star restaurant, The Trellis, in Williamsburg, Va. The dish is Grilled Chicken with Dijon Mustard and Fresh Tarragon.
All you have to do is whisk together mustard, tarragon, white wine, and salt and pepper to taste. Marinate some chicken in that mixture for 24 hours (it does require a little patience, or at least forethought) and then throw it on the grill. Celebrity chef Marcel Desaulniers then uses an old restaurant trick to finish it off: Because chicken can burn if you cook it too long over direct heat -- you want just a little char -- he cooks it first over a flame and then completes the cooking in an oven.
Although this technique does require you to turn on the oven in the summer, the dish is worth it. The chicken is spectacularly moist, and when you bite into it, it sings of the outdoors.
Desaulniers is also the inspiration for our next dish, though he wants to gussy it up with a salad full of apples, curried brown rice, oven-roasted fruit and a cherry sake dressing. You could spend all day making that, and then you'd be too tired and hot to eat it. So we have boiled it down to its summertime essentials: Pan-Seared Maple- and Ginger-Coated Sea Scallops. And we served it with rice, which is much more reasonable than oven-roasted plums, pineapple and peaches.
There is only one trick to this dish, and that is to use good-quality maple syrup. The syrup we used ran like water, though it claimed to be pure maple. As a result, the scallops did not acquire enough maple flavor -- but we could see how the rich amber sweetness played off the spicy bite of the ginger.
The trick to getting perfectly seared scallops is to dry them first with paper towels and then place them on a hot pan over high heat for just a minute and a half or two. Then, turn them over and cook the other side for perhaps a minute; scallops should be cooked until they are just beyond opaque. If you don't want them quite that rare, cook them for just a little longer, but be careful: Before you know it, they will turn rubbery.
If fish is your dish, you can't get more summery than poaching it in a simple court bouillon (a flavored liquid used for poaching). Fiona's Easy Halibut brings out the best flavor of the fish by cooking it in nothing more than white wine and thinly sliced shallots, plus salt and pepper. After the fish is cooked, remove it from the court bouillon, add some basil and parsley -- both great summertime herbs -- and reduce it down to an intensely flavored sauce.
Depending on how thick the halibut is, you can have the whole thing on your table in 15 minutes. And there is no better way to dine well while enjoying a hot summer night.
FIONA'S EASY HALIBUT WITH WHITE WINE, SHALLOTS AND BASIL
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 halibut steaks, 6-8 ounces each, about 1 inch thick
1 shallot, very thinly sliced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon white pepper
2 cups dry white wine
6-8 fresh basil leaves, washed and dried well and cut into fine ribbons (chiffonade)
1 teaspoon coarsely chopped fresh parsley
Spread the butter evenly over the bottom of a large saute pan. Put the halibut steaks on top of the butter.
Sprinkle the shallot slices, salt and white pepper over the fish. Add the white wine to the pan. Cover the pan and bring to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat to low and cook the fish until done, about 8 minutes (or longer for thicker steaks). To test for doneness, pull the bones away from the meat; they will come away easily when the fish is cooked. Remove these bones if you like. Lift the halibut out of the pan and keep it warm on the plates.
Add the basil and parsley to the pan. Bring the juices in the pan to a boil and reduce them until you have a rich sauce. Season with more salt and pepper if needed. Spoon the sauce over the fish.
Yield: 4 servings
-- "Bistro Cooking at Home," by Gordon Hammersley with Joanne McAllister Smart
THAI-STYLE GROUND TURKEY WITH CHILES AND BASIL
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon Asian fish sauce (nam pla or nuoc mam)
1/4 teaspoon finely grated lime zest
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lime juice
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon peanut oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 jalapeno, seeded and finely chopped
1 fat scallion, white and light green parts finely chopped, greens reserved for garnish
1 pound ground turkey
1/2 cup chopped fresh Thai or regular basil
Rice, for serving
Lime wedges, for serving
In a small bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, fish sauce, lime zest, lime juice and sugar (if your fish sauce is very salty, start with 2 teaspoons; you can add more at the end if the dish needs it).
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the ginger, garlic, jalapeno and chopped scallion. Cook, stirring, until slightly softened, about a minute. Stir in the turkey. Cook the meat, breaking it up with a fork, until it is no longer pink, 5-7 minutes (it will not brown).
Stir in the soy mixture and cook for a minute or so, until the flavors come together. Remove from the heat and stir in the basil. Scatter with the sliced scallion greens. Serve over rice, with lime wedges on the side.
Yield: 4 servings
-- "Cook This Now: 120 Easy and Delectable Dishes You Can't Wait to Make," by Melissa Clark
GRILLED CHICKEN WITH DIJON MUSTARD AND FRESH TARRAGON
1 cup Dijon-style mustard
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
Salt and pepper
4 (3-pound) chickens, cut into parts
Twenty-four hours before serving, whisk together the mustard, wine and tarragon in a large stainless-steel bowl. Season with salt and pepper and combine thoroughly.
Coat the chicken pieces with the mustard marinade. Individually film-wrap them and refrigerate for 24 hours before grilling.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper, and grill over a medium charcoal or wood fire for 15 minutes. Turn the chicken as necessary to avoid overcharring. Transfer to a baking sheet and finish cooking in the preheated oven for 30 minutes, or until juices run clear. Serve hot, or allow to cool and serve at room temperature.
Yield: Serves 8
-- Adapted from "The Trellis Cookbook," by Marcel Desaulniers
PAN-SEARED MAPLE- AND GINGER-COATED SEA SCALLOPS
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup, good quality
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 pound sea scallops, side muscle removed
2 tablespoons finely chopped scallions
1 tablespoon finely minced ginger
In a 3-quart stainless-steel bowl, whisk together the maple syrup and ground ginger.
Pat the scallops dry with paper towels. Lightly season the scallops with salt. Add the scallops to the maple syrup and use a rubber spatula to combine and thoroughly coat the scallops with the syrup. Transfer the scallops to a colander and drain while heating the pan.
Heat a large nonstick saute pan over high heat. When the pan is very hot, add the drained scallops and cook for about 1-1/2 minutes (or longer if well-done is preferred or if they are exceptionally large). Remove the pan from the heat. Add the scallions and ginger, and stir to combine. Serve by themselves or with rice.
Yield: About 3 servings
-- "Salad Days," by Marcel Desaulniers