By Jan Roberts-Dominguez
Dear Diary, I love cooking in the summer. If there’s one time of year when it’s darned near impossible to wreck a meal, it has to be summer.
Summer, when the overwhelming array of colorful, flavorful produce assaults your lucky senses at every turn. Summer, when the only mistake you can make in the kitchen is to underutilize or over-cook what nature has so generously provided.
Plus, expectations are low when temperatures are high. So whatever maneuvers I perform are met with volumes of awe and appreciation, when the truth is, summer meals practically cook themselves. For example…
It began with a friend dropping by just as I was headed into the kitchen. So first things first: a freezer-chilled Tangueray splashed on the rocks in two chilled glasses, followed by ice-cold tonic and a twist of lime. Now we’re cooking.
The fridge gave up a lovely strip of Carlton Farm pork tenderloin that had “Roast me” written all over it. I laid it on a cutting board, and sliced a deep pocket into the meat from stem to stern. Then I chopped up a handful of garlic cloves and some fresh basil.
After stuffing this mixture into the tenderloin, I headed back to the fridge for some feta cheese, which got crumbled and shoved into the tenderloin, right on top of the basil and garlic.
To keep the stuffing where it belonged, I wrapped some string around the meat in several places before placing it in a foil pan, along with a few glugs of a pertinent Pinot Blanc, a drizzling of olive oil, and some salt and coarsely ground black pepper.
I placed it on the Weber, offset from the smoking-hot coals.
Since dinner was going to be a while, I hunted around for some edible diversion to share with our visitor and came up with a fragrant hunk of Roaring Twenties blue and a handful of cherry tomatoes.
I tore into an Alpine baguette, smeared the crusty surface with some of the cheese and took a healthy chomp, with a tomato chaser.
After a swing through the Wednesday Farmers Market on the river front in downtown Corvallis, I dropped by Harry’s Fresh Fish, and settled on two chunks of the fresh albacore.
Once home, I fashioned a shallow roasting pan out of heavy-duty foil. While the grill was heating up, I finely chopped half a Walla Walla sweet onion, half a rib of celery, about six plump mushrooms, a backyard tomato and a fresh serrano chile.
I tossed all of those ingredients with some fresh corn kernels I’d just sliced off the cob, a bit of olive oil, a healthy pinch of salt and an aggressive cranking of black peppercorns.
I laid the albacore pieces in the center of the foil pan, rubbed them down with some olive oil, salt and peppered them, then arranged my little fresh salsa mixture all around the fish, letting a little of it hang out on top to flavor the tuna from all angles.
After about 30 minutes of indirect heat in the Weber, dinner was done.
Preparations began mid-morning when I poached a chicken in half a pot of water with some coarsely chopped cloves of garlic, a couple sprigs of fresh rosemary, and some salt and pepper.
About dinnertime, and long after the poached chicken had cooled its heels in the fridge, I pulled enough white and dark meat from the bird to feed two people, and cut it into bite-sized chunks.
Then I seasoned the chicken lightly with a little salt and pepper, added a finely minced green onion, and snipped about 1 teaspoon of fresh dill into it, along with enough sour cream and mayonnaise to barely hold the mixture together. I didn’t want to drown out the pure flavor of the chicken or dill.
In another bowl, I tossed together some baby lettuce greens, with a few shavings of Parmegano Regiano cheese and a simple vinaigrette that I’d flavored with some finely minced fresh oregano, divided the salad between two plates, then cozied a few slices of backyard tomato up against the greens, along with a healthy spoonful of the chicken salad.
First I drizzled a bit of olive oil in a skillet, added a handful of finely minced mushrooms and half a Walla Walla Sweet onion and sauteed the combo until the mushrooms began to brown.
Then I scraped the mixture to the side of the pan, drizzled in just a bit more oil and added two thin slices of chicken breast (the equivalent of one whole chicken breast, butterflied, if you will, to produce two very skinny servings), which I continued to cook until they were very golden on both sides.
While that was happening, I carved off two healthy slices of Big River Pugliese bread, scraped just a whisper of butter on the top of each, and a sprinkling of Parmesan, then popped them in the toaster oven.
I placed each of the chicken breasts on a dinner plate, and divided the mushroom mixture between the servings.
Then I took the skillet back over to the burner, and deglazed the pan with a healthy glug of the Syrah I was drinking.
Over medium-high heat, I scraped up all the wonderful cooked-on pan juices so they could dissolve into the wine, then added another glug of wine since the first had almost evaporated.
Next I drizzled in just a splash of balsamic vinegar.
Then, after that got all hot and bubbly, I blended in about a tablespoon of butter, just to hold the sauce together and give it backbone. This was a pretty thick and syrupy sauce, and I simply drizzled it around each chicken breast, making tasty puddles of flavor that Steve and I could dip our morsels of meat and Big River toast into.
Well, Dear Diary, you get the idea. Our summer harvest encourages a healthy and moderate style of cooking.
Maybe it’s because the palate is always being tantalized with fresh and exciting treats, which seems to suppress the tendency to over-eat. Or the simple fact that I’m always cooking with fresh, seasonal, and really tasty stuff.
I don’t get all worked up over what’s healthy and what’s not — it all seems to average out to “healthy” when the week’s behind us, meaning that sometimes wonderful things like linguica, bacon and salami are worked into a given meal.
In the bigger picture, it’s simply about using what nature is providing without over-doing the preparations.
Indeed, this is the time of year when wowing a hungry crowd is as easy as grilling half a big ol’ Walla Walla Sweet with a zesty glob of pesto on top.
So roast those peppers, boil that corn, steam those green beans, and toss a bounty of salad greens. Simple and satisfying, all in the same mouthful.
Please! Don’t attempt this first recipe unless you are using local backyard-ripe tomatoes.
Classic tomato bruschetta
8 (1/2-inch thick) slices good-quality crusty Italian-style bread
1 garlic clove, peeled and halved
3 ripe medium-sized tomatoes, chopped and drained
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (see note below)
1/4 cup fresh basil, finely chopped
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar (or balsamic vinegar reduction; see note below)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Grill or toast the bread until nicely browned on both sides. Rub vigorously with the cut garlic.
When ready to serve, combine the tomatoes, olive oil, basil, and vinegar in a small bowl. Toss gently and season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Spoon the mixture onto the grilled bread and serve immediately.
NOTE ON OLIVE OIL: Use the fruitiest, most flavorful extra virgin olive oil you can afford, because it can really boost your offering from common to sublime!
Balsamic vinegar reduction: To turn an average balsamic vinegar into a very rich and flavorful one, pour 2 cups of balsamic vinegar in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add 1/2 cup coarsely chopped yellow onion, 1 coarsely chopped clove of garlic, 2 teaspoons of sugar, and about 10 or 12 peppercorns. Bring the mixture to a boil and simmer until the mixture has reduced down to about 1/2 to 1/3 cup and is thickened and somewhat syrupy. Let the mixture cool and then strain through a fine sieve (be sure and press the onions and garlic with the back of a wooden spoon to squeeze out all of the juicy balsamic vinegar). Store the reduction in a tightly closed jar. It will keep for months and months! Use it to drizzle over tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, or to jazz up a vegetable saute or to drizzle over roasting vegetables.
Makes 8 servings.
Simply sauteed corn
6 ears sweet corn (to yield about 3 cups kernels)
2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Optional additions to consider: a bit of chopped red or green sweet bell pepper; minced fresh parsley; 1 tomato (seeded and chopped); chopped fresh herbs (i.e., basil, cilantro, thyme, marjoram, or tarragon); pinch of chili powder; diced fresh jalapeno or serrano peppers; chopped roasted poblano peppers, or chopped roasted Anaheim peppers; 1 or 2 slices cooked and crumbled bacon.
Cut and scrape the kernels from the corn cob and saute in a skillet with the butter or olive oil until heated through, 3 to 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and then stir in any of the “optional additions.”
Makes 4 servings.
A very simple way with green beans
11/2 pounds green beans, French cut
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons finely minced fresh garlic
1-1/2 cups chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated ginger root
1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper
2-3 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Drop the beans in a large pot of boiling water. As soon as the water returns to a boil, simmer, uncovered just until the beans are barely tender. Remove the beans from the burner, strain through a colander and immediately plunge them into a large bowl of cold water to stop the cooking process and set the color; drain well and set aside or proceed with the recipe. (this can be done up to 24 hours ahead and refrigerated).
In a large non-reactive skillet heat the olive and sesame oils over medium heat. Add the garlic and saute about 1 minute. Add the chicken broth, soy sauce, ginger root, and white pepper and bring the mixture to a boil. Whisk in the mustard, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook about 1 minute, to develop the flavors. Add the green beans and continue cooking, uncovered, for another 5 minutes, or until the beans have cooked to the desired level of tenderness.
Makes 6 servings.
Bow-tie pasta with eggplant, Walla Walla Sweets and pine nuts
1 pound bow-tie pasta, rotini, or cavatelli
1/2 cup olive oil
2 Walla Walla Sweet onions, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 eggplants, peeled, diced and cut into 1/2-inch cubes to measure about 8 cups
4 garlic cloves, minced
3 roasted red bell peppers, peeled, cored, seeded and thinly sliced
1/2 cup lightly toasted pine nuts
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
8-10 fresh basil leaves, cut into very thin strips
1/2 cup Italian Vinaigrette (recipe follows, or use your own or a good-quality store-bought)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 cup crumbled creamy goat cheese
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling, salted water, stirring occasionally, 8 to 10 minutes or until al dente. Drain and toss with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and set aside.
Heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onions and cook and stir about 10 minutes, until the onions are soft and translucent. Add 2 tablespoons of the balsamic vinegar, reduce heat to low, and cook and stir 20 to 25 minutes longer, until the onions are soft, brown, and caramelized; set aside.
Meanwhile, toss the remaining olive oil and remaining balsamic vinegar with the eggplant and garlic and mix to coat evenly. Spread in a single layer in a baking pan and place in the oven to roast for 25 to 30 minutes. Stir several times during the cooking process, until the eggplant is lightly browned and tender. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
Combine the pasta, onions, eggplant-garlic mixture, roasted red bell peppers, pine nuts, parsley, basil, and vinaigrette and toss lightly to mix. Season with salt and pepper and add the goat cheese. Toss gently to mix again. Serve immediately or refrigerate until ready to serve.
Yields 10 to 12 servings.
Foster’s Italian vinaigrette
In a jar or bowl, combine 1/3 cup red wine vinegar, 3 cloves of minced garlic, 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard, 2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano, 2/3 cup Extra-virgin olive oil, and salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Makes 1 cup.
From “The Foster’s Market Cookbook,” by Sara Foster.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.