By Scott Packard
on 5.14.13

Certain dishes simply fit a particular season. The availability of produce, tradition, and, in large part, what our bodies are craving all play a role in this. Rich, warm foods help prepare the animal (that’s us) for winter’s scarcity and cold weather; cool, moisture-rich dishes fill a similar practical need in summer. Ingredients that can be pulled straight from the fridge, or better yet, your porch or yard, and mixed together retain more of that fructifying wetness to replace sweat in the heat of a summer day. Abandoning the extra warmth that comes with the oven or stovetop is a nice bonus.

But we’re more than simple beasts here (most of the time), and we know you, too, are looking for higher threshold for your palate. The primer below isn’t simply delicious recipe ideas for cold dishes: we look into the “methodology” of each hot-weather fare, along with optional accompaniments and alternatives to make your (picnic) table sing.

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Dipping Right In

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Chef Marcela Valladolid’s Salsa Asada

Yield: 2 cups

8 plum tomatoes, cored
1 large shallot, peeled
2 serrano chiles, stemmed
1/3 cup chicken broth
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the tomatoes, shallot, and serranos to the dry skillet and char on all sides 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer the charred ingredients to a blender, add the broth, and process until smooth. Return the salsa to the skillet and cook over medium-high heat 5-7 minutes until salsa turns a bright red color. Season with salt and pepper.

There are plenty of beloved options here. Salsa is a popular “go-to”, but hummus and guacamole are some other versatile no-cook dips that will dress a range of foods, from chips to vegetables. With hummus, the mighty chickpea, a.k.a. garbanzo bean, is basically turned to mash in a food processor or blender. Dried chickpeas definitely serve as the basis for a superior hummus; however, they require cooking. If you decide the heat is worth it, add a bit of baking soda for a softer, creamier blend, but otherwise stick to canned beans. And don’t worry about the skins — the difference in texture (miniscule) is not worth the labor, nor are the complaints of the loved ones pressed into the job. With extra tahini (sesame seed paste, which is often difficult to find but available at upscale markets), a little water, and the slow addition of olive oil, you can get a smooth, silky dip.

Guacamole is essentially avocados mashed up with salt and a little citrus juice, lime or lemon — your choice. Hugely popular at everything from Superbowl parties to 4th of July picnics, guacamole has transitioned from SoCal surfer condiment to mainstream American fare. The additives go from basic, like onion, garlic, cilantro and tomato, to the extreme, with sour cream, bacon, and even mayonnaise (blech) creeping into Midwest variations. A little (or a lot, for those who like it hot) chopped jalapenos, stripped of seeds and veins, will give your guac just the right amount of heat to sweat out the toxins of last night’s sins.

Summer Salads

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Chef Eduard Frauneder’s and Chef Wolfgang Ban’s Kale Salad

Serves: 8

2-3 tbsp pumpkinseed oil
2-3 tbsp balsamic vinegar
Juice from one lemon or splash of bottled lemon juice
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1/2 Vidalia onion sliced thin
1 carrot grated
1/4 cup Granny Smith apple (thinly sliced)
1/4 cup chopped nuts (walnuts, pecans, etc.)
1 4 oz. container of gorgonzola cheese
1 bunch of kale (washed, dried, chopped)

Combine first five ingredients into a large bowl and whisk together. Add onion, carrots, apple, nuts, and cheese. Mix so they are all coated with vinaigrette. Add kale and mix thoroughly.

Kale is the leafy green of last season: an uber-lettuce loaded with phyto-chemicals and flush with hope as a duly appointed “super-food”. That’s all fine, but it actually tastes good raw (which protects all the healthy chemical goodness from the destructive heat of cooking), provided it’s sufficiently macerated in an acidic dressing. Mix the chopped leaf, stripped from the hard center stem, with walnuts and shaved Parm before lightly coating it with vinaigrette of your choice, store-bought or homemade. It you’ve got the time and motivation for a homemade dressing, go with one of the lighter acids, like Champagne or sherry vinegar, to preserve the flavor of the kale while cutting the bitterness of the green. Lightly season with salt and fresh pepper, then serve.

Pasta Salad is not strictly no-cook — you’ve got us there. However, prepared early in the day and allowed to chill in the refrigerator, it will preclude a hot mess in your kitchen. Variations on theme are endless, whether Italian, Asian, or Mediterranean, and potential ingredients range from simple (tomato, broccoli, black olives, nuts) to the arcane (broccoli rabe, dandelion greens, watermelon radishes). With meat or without, pasta salad is a filling dish that can serve as a central player of a meal. Swap out the pasta with a whole grain like bulgur, quinoa, or freekeh, and you have a protein-rich salad that will fire the engine without overheating the cabin.

Watermelon, Watermelon

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Rosa Mexicano’s Agua Fresca

Yield: 8 quarts

10 lbs seedless watermelon
8 cups cold water
1 lb sugar

Remove the rind of the watermelon and cube into 3-inch pieces. Blend the watermelon chunks and sugar in small amounts in the blender with a small amount of water to a thin puree. Strain the puree in a fine chinois. Refrigerate until chilled.

Watermelon, in addition to being the quintessential summer fruit, is also rich in the phyto-chemical citrulline. So what? Citrulline is converted to arginine in the body, which boosts nitric oxide and relaxes blood vessels: the same effects of Viagra, without a prescription or a trip to Mexico. Tossed with a vinaigrette, some onion and a salty cheese like feta or goat, watermelon makes for a refreshing summer salad. Skip the balsamic vinegar — the watermelon brings enough sweetness to balance the salt of the cheese — and go with a rice wine or Champagne vinegar.

Agua Fresca, a popular Mexican drink, is also light and refreshing. A cubed, seedless watermelon, blended with enough apple or grape juice for your desired thickness, makes a delicious (and pink) frothy beverage. Add raspberries, kiwi, or strawberries for a touch of tartness, and you’ll be tempted to pass on high-fructose sodas for this healthier alternative, never mind those other “uplifting” benefits.

To-may-to, To-mah-to

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Num Pang’s Gazpacho

Serves: 4

Soup
1 16 oz. can of tomato juice (preferably organic)
2 kirby cucumbers
2 red bell peppers (stem and seeds and ribs out)
3 vine ripened tomatoes
1/2 clove of garlic
1/4 jalapeno
10 picked and rinsed thai basil leaves
20 picked and rinsed cilantro leaves
4 tbs rice wine vinegar
Salt and pepper

Garnish
1 carrot (shredded)
1 tbs sugar
S/P
4 tbs white vinegar

First, combine the garnish ingredients, mix, and let stand for an hour while you prepare the gazpacho. Add all the gazpacho ingredients to a blender and pulse until the mixture is still a little chunky. Adjust flavor with salt and pepper and vinegar. If it’s still too thick, add a touch of cold water. Garnish with pickled carrots and basil croutons.

Tomatoes are THE summer vegetable (they’re botanically a fruit, but have been decreed a vegetable by Supreme Court decision), zucchini being as prolific but not as appreciated. Gazpacho, the cold Spanish soup, is the perfect way to take advantage of the red, pulpy fruit. Blending seeded tomatoes and cucumbers, (preferably Armenian or English of the latter) with finely diced onions, bell peppers, salt, red wine or sherry vinegar gives you a nice base. Whether you strain the mixture to remove the tomato skins, as Thomas Keller suggests, or drop the tomatoes into a little hot water and peel them beforehand, as my wife insists, both agree that garnishing the soup with chopped cucumber, onion, and pepper after blending in some olive oil makes for a more hearty, satisfying texture.

Basil flourishes under the same conditions as tomatoes, making it the natural culinary companion in everything ltalian from marinara to tomato salad. One of my favorite ways to eat tomatoes, caprese, pairs the harvest with mozzarella di bufala (that’s domesticated water buffalo, not American Bison), olive oil and balsamic vinegar, finished with salt and fresh cracked pepper. The acid of the tomato pairs with the peppery bite of the basil and the salty tang of the cheese for a perfect combination.

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish

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Laurent Cantineaux’s (Bonito, St. Barth’s) Salmon Ceviche

Serves: 4

1 lb. Scottish salmon filet
1/2 oz. jalapeno or spicy chili
1 red onion
1 cup lime juice (or Grape or Passion fruit juice)
2 oz. fresh cilantro
1/4 cup olive oil
1 cucumber, diced
12 cherry tomatoes
1 green apple
1 oz. black sesame seeds
Salt

Get the freshest fish you can buy. Remove the skin, and cut the filet in half-centimeter dices. Keep in the fridge. Peel the cucumber, remove the seeds and cut into dices the same size as the salmon. Keep in the fridge. Cut the cherry tomatoes in halves. Keep fresh. Cut the apple into little matchsticks (with a mandolin), or cut in very small dices. Remove seeds from the chili. Finely slice the red onion and chili, then wash them in cold water and dry. Coarsely shop cilantro leaves. Save some on the side for garnish.

In a large mixing bowl, gently toss together the salmon, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, 3 ice cubes, lime juice, onions, cilantro and salt. Remove with a stainless steal spoon and check seasoning. Transfer salmon cerviche to a cold soup bowl or martini glass for plating. Garnish with apple sticks, reserved cilantro leaves and sesame seeds.

To be fair, it’s not strictly a fish: previously cooked crustaceans flash-frozen can be easily thawed and added to cocktail sauce for an insanely popular dish that bypasses the stove or oven. Using either shrimp or crab and a jarred cocktail sauce is the easiest preparation, though making your own cocktail sauce is the mark of a serious gourmand. Jacque Pepin’s sauce is basically ketchup, horseradish, Tabasco, Worcestershire, and lemon juice, just a shade away from being a damn fine Bloody Mary. Kill two birds with one whisk.

Ceviche (a.k.a. crudo, poke, or tartare) is raw fish simply marinated in citric acid until the protein is denatured, losing its secondary and tertiary structure as if it were cooked. Unlike cooking though, which kills bacteria and parasites, an acid marinade requires the freshest fish, handled under the most stringent hygienic conditions. Depending on the fish, the denaturing can take place in minutes or as long as a few hours, with more delicate fish taking less time than more meaty ones, like shark. The basic components are fresh fish and the juice from limes or lemons, with onion, garlic, coriander and other ingredients making an appearance depending on the region. Served on crackers or eaten straight, it’s the new sushi.

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