Kitchen Intuition: Summer dinners

Authored By aliceodea

Y’all, it’s too hot out there for food. Every day this week, I’ve gotten up in the morning and had a good breakfast; then as soon as I’ve set foot outside and been hit with that wall of heat and humidity, my will to eat anything has disappeared.

I’d have some fruit and peanut butter for lunch, and by evening, my husband and I would stand in the kitchen, and the discussion about dinner would go something like this: “Are you hungry?” “Nope. It’s too hot to eat.” “I’m not hungry, either; I just want something cold to drink.” A well-chilled beer and a few carrots dunked in hummus later, and any discussion of dinner was over.

Even though it seems like the heat and humidity roll into town just for Riverbend, it looks like this weather might hang around even after the festival is over, and what I’m describing is not a sustainable eating pattern (though there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a cold beer and even some properly prepared ice cream on a regular basis). I’m open to suggestions if you have your own ideas for throwing together a quick dinner on a hot summer day. Here are some things I tried as the week wore on.

The first and most obvious dish to make is a salad. The markets are full of fresh, cool, crisp vegetables, so this is a natural choice. This can go simple or fancy-anywhere from a small bowl of greens with a sprinkle of Parmesan or feta cheese and a drizzle of a thick, aged balsamic vinegar; to a loaded plate topped with anything and everything in the refrigerator and pantry (sliced or minced hard-cooked eggs, olives, artichokes, carrots, beets, onions, grains, seeds, pasta, beans, cheese and so on), all dressed with a homemade vinaigrette.

A lovely woman that I chatted with at the Hunter Museum of American Art this week said that she was headed home to make a salad she found in The New York Times, using farro cooked in apple cider, which sounds wonderful. I like the recipe’s suggestion of shaving the Parmesan so that it is paper-thin, but also relatively large in size. And between the grain and the pistachio nuts, this could be hearty enough to serve as an entrée salad, while also being light enough for a hot day. Just about any kind of greens will do, and the preparation has a lot of room to adjust according to your tastes and what you have on hand.

My sister-in-law sent me a recipe for an amazing sugar-, dairy-, egg-, gluten-, peanut-, soy- and animal-product-free Cuban dish that I tried right away, and it was amazing. Everybody loved it. The prep was very quick and easy, and required just a bit of cooking-quinoa on the stovetop and some sweet potato in the oven (either of which could easily be done ahead of time and away from the heat of the day). Fortunately, I made a lot; it was a fantastic dinner, and the leftovers made for an effortless and yummy lunch the next day.

The idea is similar to Thug Kitchen‘s “build a bowl” or J. Kenji López-Alt‘s “one bean, one green, one grain” formula for improvising a meal based on your refrigerator’s contents, your mood and the pickiness of the people you’re feeding. Don’t worry about following any particular recipe-pluck an idea to work from, start pulling things out of the pantry and see what happens. A few days after making the Cuban quinoa bowl, I was still thinking about its yummy cashew dressing, so I whipped up another quick batch and put it on top of a salad I made with nothing but leftovers that were languishing in the fridge. The result was cool, crisp, refreshing and filling; it was just perfect.

Alice O’Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn’t really learn to cook until midlife. When she’s not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not or its employees.