When we sit down to eat this time of year, we should toast farmers rather than cooks. They've done the heavy lifting, and their produce, in all its ripe glory, allows us home cooks to do so little and get so much in return. Since I prefer dishes that require minimal effort, summer is my favorite time to be in the kitchen.
Like all things that come and go, summer produce is best celebrated at its peak. Which is right now.
My beloved of-the-moment ingredients, from juicy tomatoes to fistfuls of soft herbs, invite you to go in so many directions. Whether you bake muffins studded with nectarines, or marinate tomatoes with lots of garlic and red pepper flakes (and whether you toss the tomatoes with pasta or use them as a bed for grilled fish), the recipes that follow put the bounty front and center. They also offer variations, so those muffins can be made with cherries and almonds, or even be vegan and gluten-free. For the tomatoes, you can swap garlic for ginger, vinegar for fish sauce and basil for cilantro. The effect is something completely different, while the method is exactly the same (and so easy, to boot). How about that?
A bit more about the Garlicky Marinated Tomatoes. While you never cook the tomatoes, warming the garlic and red pepper flakes in oil makes all the difference. That bit of heat allows the flavors to bloom and take over. The tomatoes then sit in the slightly warm bath until they relax back to room temperature. Combined with the natural juices, plus fresh herbs, the ethereal mixture tastes far more complex than it was to prepare. Then, use the tomatoes on any- and everything. Turn them into a rustic pasta sauce. Top them with grilled fish, chicken, shrimp or eggs (poached ones are particularly nice). Or use them as the topper, crowning grilled bread, sliced mozzarella or crumbled goat cheese. You can even blend leftovers with a chopped onion and a pepper and then chill it down for an easy gazpacho.
And then we have sweet corn.
My main idea is Crispy, Smoky Skillet Corn, inspired by an old recipe in Lee Bailey's seminal cookbook "Country Weekends." Lee had you cut the kernels from the cobs, scrape the milky liquid, mix the whole lot with flour and bake it in a hot cast-iron skillet. I use cornmeal in place of flour to keep the flavor at full volume (bonus: it keeps the side dish gluten-free, if that's important to you) and cook it in a skillet on my outdoor grill. Anything to keep the oven off, if possible. Plus, you get all that wonderful smoke flavor. The result is a crumbly corn cake that's so crisp on the bottom and tender on top; the combination is simply heaven.
One variation is to grate the corn rather than slice off the kernels. It's a bit of a job, but the result is a creamy mixture almost like a corn pudding or spoon bread. The final variation forgoes cooking altogether: You leave the kernels raw and toss them with a spicy mixture of pickled jalapeños and their brine, along with fresh cilantro and lime juice. Try this on top of grilled steak or a baked sweet potato.
Every so often, the oven is worth turning on. Try baking Nectarine Corn Muffins first thing in the morning - you can make the batter the previous night - before the heat of the day kicks in. Not only will this be kinder to your air conditioning, but you'll also have the most tender muffins in time for your coffee. The batter is incredibly simple and holds any soft fruit beautifully. The vegan, gluten-free variation works just as well. If you want to skip baking all together, slice your ripe stone fruits and put them in the bottom of your wine glasses before topping with ice-cold rosé or white wine. The time of day is unimportant.
Soft herbs are irresistible in summer, whether you grow them in your yard or a window box, or pick them up by the armful at the farmers market. I'm talking Italian parsley, basil, mint, chives, tarragon, cilantro and chervil. I love using them in large quantities in just about everything, including a brown rice salad studded with almonds and raisins, rich pestos and creamy salad dressings.
Last, there's summer squash, which even has "summer" in its name. It's one of the most versatile items I know, and I think it's often underrated. Grate it into simple fritters that turn golden and crisp, and you've got just the thing to go with your evening cocktail. Or grill the squash and top it with crunchy pistachios and fragrant mint.
Or do what I do nearly every night: Slice it thin, toss it with olive oil and lemon, sprinkle it with salt and parsley and add a bit of shaved Parmesan. A knife, a board and a bowl are all you need. It's perfect with a piece of chicken or a hot dog off the grill, alongside eggs in the morning, or on its own in a bowl on a porch with an iced tea nearby, condensation dripping down the outside of the glass.
From my kitchen to yours, it's summer.
- - -
Crispy, Smoky Skillet Corn
The secret to this corn is to get your cast-iron skillet piping hot. Whether you use an outdoor grill or a hot oven, the pan's heat is essential to creating the irresistibly crisp crust on the corn.
See the two variations, below. (From cookbook author Julia Turshen.)
6 ears corn, shucked
1/3 cup coarsely ground cornmeal
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon bacon fat (may substitute unsalted butter, olive oil or canola oil)
Place an 8-inch cast-iron skillet on an outdoor grill set to medium-high or in a 425-degree oven to heat up for at least 10 minutes.
Cut the kernels off the corn cobs and place them in a large bowl.
Use the blunt edge of your knife to scrape the milky liquid from the cobs into the same bowl; reserve the cobs for another use, if desired. Add the cornmeal and salt to the bowl and stir well to combine.
Place the bacon fat in the scorching-hot skillet and tilt the skillet so that the fat coats the bottom and sides. Add the corn mixture and pat down in an even layer. Cover the grill; cook for 15 minutes, until the top of the corn is bright yellow and the underside has formed a beautiful, crispy crust. Or roast (middle rack) in the oven for about 30 minutes.
Use a round-edged knife to loosen the edges of the corn, and a flexible spatula, as needed, and carefully invert the corn onto a serving platter. Serve right away.
VARIATIONS: To make Creamy Grated Skillet Corn, instead of cutting the kernels off the 6 corn cobs, grate them on the large-holed side of a box grater. Omit the cornmeal, but be sure to mix the salt into the grated corn. Proceed with the rest of the recipe as directed above. The mixture will cook into an almost pudding-like texture.
To make Raw Corn Salad With Pickled Jalapeños and Cilantro, skip the cooking. Combine the kernels and scraped corn cob liquid from the 6 ears of corn with 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, 3 tablespoons olive oil, 1 1/2 tablespoons minced pickled jalapeños, 1 tablespoon brine from the jar (or can) of pickled jalapeños, 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice and 1 large handful finely chopped fresh cilantro. The yield is about 4 cups.
Nutrition | Per serving: 170 calories, 5 g protein, 31 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 590 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 10 g sugar
Nutrition | Per serving (Raw Corn Salad With Pickled Jalapeños and Cilantro): 230 calories, 6 g protein, 32 g carbohydrates, 13 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 570 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 10 g sugar
- - -
Garlicky Marinated Tomatoes
4 servings (makes about 2 cups)
See two flavor VARIATIONS, below.
MAKE AHEAD: The tomatoes need to marinate at room temperature for at least 15 minutes, and up to 3 hours, before serving.
(From cookbook author Julia Turshen.)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 small cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 pound ripe tomatoes, each cut in half if small; cored and coarsely chopped if large
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1 teaspoon kosher salt, or more as needed
1 small handful fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced
Combine the oil, garlic and crushed red pepper flakes in a small skillet over medium heat. Once the garlic starts to sizzle (about 30 seconds), pour the mixture into a mixing bowl, making sure to scrape the pan with a wooden spoon to get every little bit.
Add the tomatoes, vinegar and salt, stirring well to incorporate. Taste and add more salt, as needed (tomatoes love salt). Let the tomatoes sit for at least 15 minutes before serving, or cover them and let them sit at room temperature for up to 3 hours. Right before serving, stir in the basil. The yield is about 2 cups.
VARIATIONS: To make Vietnamese-Style Marinated Tomatoes, add 1 tablespoon peeled/minced fresh ginger root to the pan along with the garlic and crushed red pepper flakes. Substitute fish sauce for the sherry vinegar (same amount). Just before serving, add 1 small handful each of coarsely chopped fresh cilantro, mint and basil (preferably Thai basil).
To make Puttanesca-Style Marinated Tomatoes, add 4 broken-up anchovies and 2 tablespoons capers to the pan along with the garlic and crushed red pepper flakes. Just before serving, add a large handful of coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley and a large handful of pitted/chopped green or black olives.
Nutrition | Per serving: 120 calories, 1 g protein, 5 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 290 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar
- - -
Nectarine Corn Muffins
This muffin batter is incredibly easy and creates tender muffins that aren't too sweet.
Try using any type of stone fruit (including cherries) in place of, or in addition to, the nectarines. For gluten-free and/or vegan bakers, try the second VARIATION, below.
MAKE AHEAD: The muffins can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days.
(From cookbook author Julia Turshen.)
1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
3/4 cup regular buttermilk
8 ounces nectarines (from 1 large or 2 small), pitted and cut into 1/2-inch dice
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 12-well, standard-size muffin pan with paper liners.
Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a mixing bowl, until well incorporated.
Combine the egg, melted butter and buttermilk in a large bowl and whisk well to combine.
Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture and stir until just combined, then stir in the nectarines.
Distribute the batter evenly among the prepared muffin cups, filling them all the way to the top. Bake (middle rack) for 30 minutes, until the muffins are golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center of each one comes out clean.
Cool to room temperature before eating.
VARIATIONS: To make Any Stone Fruit Muffins, substitute pitted and chopped fresh plums, peaches, apricots and/or cherries for the nectarines. If you use cherries, try adding 1/4 teaspoon almond extract to the batter, along with 1/2 cup sliced almonds.
To make Vegan, Gluten-Free Muffins, substitute your favorite all-purpose gluten-free baking mix for the flour. Instead of the eggs, butter and buttermilk, use 1 tablespoon ground flax seeds, 2 tablespoons water, 1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce, 1/4 cup olive oil plus 1/2 cup of your favorite non-dairy milk.
Nutrition | Per muffin: 180 calories, 3 g protein, 23 g carbohydrates, 8 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 35 mg cholesterol, 160 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 8 g sugar
Nutrition | Per vegan muffin (using almond milk): 150 calories, 2 g protein, 24 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 150 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 7 g sugar
- - -
Brown Rice and Herb Salad
4 to 6 servings, Healthy
When you want a substantial side dish but can't bear the heat, try this cold rice salad - it has nearly as many herbs as there are rice kernels. If you want to make this super fast, pick up cooked rice from a Chinese takeout restaurant or use frozen/defrosted rice.
For other ways to use tons of soft herbs, try either of the two variations, below.
MAKE AHEAD: The salad can be refrigerated for up to 3 days. Bring to room temperature before serving.
(From cookbook author Julia Turshen.)
4 cups cooked brown rice (long- or short-grain), at room temperature
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 loosely packed cups soft herbs (such as Italian parsley, basil, mint, chives, tarragon, cilantro, and/or chervil), tough stems discarded, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup dried currants (may substitute raisins)
1/4 cup roasted salted almonds, coarsely chopped
Combine the rice, oil, vinegar, salt, herbs, dried currants and almonds in a large serving bowl and toss well to incorporate. Serve right away, at room temperature, or let sit covered at room temperature for up to 2 hours before serving.
VARIATIONS: To make about 1 cup of Any-Soft-Herb Pesto (vegan), combine the following ingredients in a food processor: 2 small chopped garlic cloves, 1/3 cup unsalted nuts and about 3 loosely packed cups of stemmed herbs. Pulse until finely chopped. With the motor running, drizzle in about 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, forming a rich green paste. Taste and season lightly with salt. Some of Julia Turshen's favorite pesto combinations are pistachios and mint; walnuts, pine nuts, flat-leaf parsley and basil; and peanuts with cilantro.
To make about 1 1/2 cups of Creamy Any-Soft-Herb Goddess Dressing, combine 2 small minced garlic cloves, about 3 loosely packed cups of fresh soft herbs, 1/2 cup mayonnaise, 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar and 2 tablespoons water in a blender. Puree until smooth. Season lightly with salt.
Nutrition | Per serving (based on 6; with 1 cup of Any-Soft-Herb Pesto in the salad; using walnuts, mint, parsley and basil): 410 calories, 7 g protein, 39 g carbohydrates, 26 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 290 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugar
Nutrition | Per 2-tablespoon serving of Creamy Any-Soft-Herb Goddess Dressing; using regular mayonnaise, mint, parsley and basil: 70 calories, 0 g protein, 1 g carbohydrates, 8 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 80 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar
- - -
Summer Squash Fritters With Buttermilk Dressing
4 servings (makes about 20 fritters)
Try them on a salad and drizzle everything with the buttermilk dressing for an easy vegetarian meal.
See the two VARIATIONS, below - in one, the squash takes a brief turn on the grill, and in the other, there's no cooking at all. (FYI: No nutritional analysis for the fritters was available at presstime.)
(From cookbook author Julia Turshen.)
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 large clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons minced fresh chives (may substitute flat-leaf parsley)
1/2 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 pound summer squash (about 4 medium), ends trimmed, coarsely grated
1 large egg, beaten
About 1/2 cup vegetable oil, for frying
Whisk together the buttermilk, mayonnaise, vinegar, garlic, chives and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt in a medium bowl.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder and 1 teaspoon salt in a large bowl.
Place the grated squash in the center of a clean kitchen towel and wrap it up tightly. Wring out the liquid over the sink.
Unwrap the squash and add it to the bowl with the flour mixture along with the egg; stir until everything is well combined.
Line a plate with paper towels.
Heat 1/4 cup of the oil in a large, heavy nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers (a little bit of the fritter mixture will sizzle upon contact), drop in tablespoonfuls of the batter, without crowding them, and use the back of the spoon to press each mound into a flat pancake.
Cook the fritters until the undersides are browned, about 3 minutes, then carefully turn them and cook until the second sides are nicely browned, for about 2 minutes. Transfer to the lined plate. Fry the remaining batter in batches, adding the remaining oil to the skillet as needed.
Sprinkle the warm fritters with a little salt. Serve right away, with the buttermilk dressing for dipping.
VARIATIONS: To make Grilled Summer Squash With Pistachios and Mint, cut the squash into planks or thick rounds, coat lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Cook on a medium-hot grill until marked all over and tender, then place on a serving platter. Squeeze over a little fresh lemon and top with pistachio kernels that you've toasted and coarsely chopped and plenty of torn mint.
To make a Shaved Squash and Parm Salad, use a very sharp knife, vegetable peeler or a mandoline to cut the squash lengthwise into very thin slices. Dress lightly with olive oil and fresh lemon juice and season lightly with salt. Arrange on a platter and top with lots of shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and a little finely chopped flat-leaf parsley. Serve right away.
Nutrition | Per serving of Grilled Summer Squash With Pistachios and Mint: 100 calories, 3 g protein, 7 g carbohydrates, 7 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 150 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar
Nutrition | Per serving of Shaved Squash and Parm Salad: 80 calories, 4 g protein, 4 g carbohydrates, 6 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 240 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar
Turshen is a cookbook author and recipe developer.