Cool dishes for a hot summer

EUGENIA UHL PHOTOGRAPH

Cooking with the seasons has always been an interest of mine. Maybe it’s because I grew up with an extra lot behind my backyard where my father planted every vegetable the southern climate would allow. And what he didn’t grow, my mother added along the yard’s fences. We had eggplants, butterbeans, turnips, tomatoes, greens, carrots, okra, asparagus, green onions, lettuce and fruit trees. Our only needs from the grocery store, as I remember, were meat and light bread, as we called it. Biscuits and cornbread were made at home.

I still love to buy what’s in season right here in our own hometown, and summer, hot as it may be, offers wonderful harvests. Fresh corn for grilling, peaches for slicing over ice cream and watermelons for great salads or just plain eating. Summer also makes you want to stay out of the kitchen and, at most, throw something on the grill to cook while you go back to the swimming pool or air-conditioning.

I recently spent a week at a spa just across the border of Mexico and thought I’d died and gone to heaven or had been reborn as Eve. Rancho La Puerta truly was a Garden of Eden, with every flower I could imagine in bloom and vegetable gardens filled with squash, kale, peppers and sweet peas. What impressed me most was how the chefs designed works of art on the plates with fruits and vegetables and only a smidgen of fish or chicken without sacrificing taste at all. My main purchase at the gift shop was a copy of Cooking with the Seasons at Rancho La Puerta, (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) containing many of their secrets.

Since returning home, I’ve played around with the recipes, creating some of my own but focusing on fresh ingredients. Someone at the spa told me to avoid the center of the grocery store and shop only on the outside lanes – produce, meat and dairy. That way, you purchase nothing in boxes or processed. Good idea, I thought. If I can’t have a giant garden in my own backyard, I can at least work with fresh food from the markets. And I learned some new tricks from the fabulous cooking school the ranch has built on a nearby property containing acres and acres of farmland. My husband’s tomato and bell pepper plants further inspire me. He even has an eggplant vine twirling out of a pot – I’m especially interested in that one because eggplant is my favorite vegetable.

The best news is that I lost 5 pounds at the spa and I don’t want to gain it back. So I’ve come up with some new things to eat, like jicama instead of chips for dipping in guacamole. And, let me tell you about cutting the fat in guacamole by adding green peas. (You’ll never know the difference!) I made the best frittata with broccoli, cabbage, kale and spinach, and lasagna with corn tortillas and a half dozen vegetables that even my meat-eating husband loved. Mexicans know how to season food like we do, but they do it with different spices. Cilantro, cumin and roasted peppers all bring strong flavors to otherwise bland food.

But for our hot summer, I’m cooling off with some simple dishes that don’t require an oven. These are my versions of some recipes from the ranch.

CUCUMBER, DILL AND YOGURT SALAD
1 cup plain yogurt
1 tablespoon fresh dill or
      1 teaspoon dried
Sea salt and freshly ground
      pepper to taste
2 cucumbers, peeled and sliced
1/2 medium onion, chopped

Mix yogurt, dill and seasonings. Add cucumbers and onions. Cover and let marinate for at least 1 hour.
Serves 4.

GREEN PEA GUACAMOLE WITH JICAMA
3 ripe Haas avocados
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1 large or 2 small ripe
      tomatoes, chopped
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1 small to medium jalapeno
      pepper, seeded and minced
1 teaspoon minced garlic
Sea salt and freshly ground
      pepper to taste
Juice of 1 lime
1 cup frozen green peas,
      slightly thawed
1 jicama

In a medium bowl, mash avocados with a fork. Add all other ingredients, except peas and jicama, and mix.
Place peas in a food processor or blender and puree. The texture can be smooth or slightly lumpy. Add to avocado mixture and stir well.
Peel jicama and cut into 3-by-1/2-inch strips. Serve as dippers for guacamole.
Serves 10 to 12.

GRILLED SHRIMP ON SKEWERS
2 pounds large shrimp
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons chopped fresh
      herbs (such as rosemary,
      basil, thyme, oregano)
1 teaspoon Creole seasoning
Sea salt and freshly ground
      pepper to taste

Peel and devein shrimp, leaving the tail on for presentation, if desired.
Mix all other ingredients and marinate shrimp for an hour in the refrigerator.
Light a charcoal fire or use a gas grill. Skewer shrimp on metal or wooden sticks, or you can use sprigs of rosemary*, and grill until just done (about 10 minutes), turning once. Baste with marinating sauce while grilling. Shrimp should be within 6 inches of fire for lightly browning. Do not overcook.
Serves 4 as entrée, 8 as
appetizers.
*To use rosemary sprigs as skewers, cut 6- to 8-inch stems. Pull off the leaves, leaving 2 inches of leaves on the tops for decoration. Soak the sprigs in water for 20 minutes so they won’t burn. When ready to skewer shrimp, work with a metal skewer or ice pick to punch the holes first. Then skewer the shrimp in two places so that the shrimp is curled over the skewer. If possible, keep the leaves on top away from the fire, but don’t worry if they burn; the stems still make good skewers.

WATERMELON AND ROASTED BEET SALAD

1 large wedge watermelon
2 or 3 small to medium beets
1 small onion, chopped
2 tablespoons extra-virgin
      olive oil
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground
       pepper to taste
1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese

Cut watermelon into 1-inch chunks, removing seeds. You should have about 3 cups. Trim beets but don’t peel. Wrap beets in foil and roast in a 350-degree oven until a knife slides in easily. This will take about 1 1/2 hours. Cool and slice or cut into cubes.
Place watermelon, beets and onion in a medium bowl. In a smaller bowl, mix oil and vinegar with seasonings. Sprinkle over salad, toss and add feta cheese. This can be served immediately or marinated for an hour in the refrigerator.
Serves 6.

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