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Too hot to cook

(article, Matthew Card)

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While I love the abundant produce available during high summer, the wilting heat makes me irritable. Consequently, the last thing I want to do is spend a lot of time in my hot, non-air-conditioned kitchen, prepping meals and washing dishes. 

That said, I’ve come up with a multi-pronged strategy that keeps me — and my family and friends — well-fed without too much effort or heat exposure.

I stock my kitchen with all manner of cheeses, charcuterie, pickles, and condiments that can be pulled together into inventive sandwiches (the star of summer eating, in my opinion) or used as accent ingredients in salads or pasta dishes. And I always have a large, crusty loaf of bread or interesting rolls in the breadbox for “dagwoods.” (Any stale rusks or remainders are perfect for the Tuscan bread salad known as panzanella.)

[%image "feature-image" width=425 float=right caption="Spatchcocked, or butterflied, chicken is a summer staple."] 

In the same vein, I like to keep a satisfying dip or spread on hand for the quickest of meals, no assembly required. When staples like hummus and baba ghanouj lose their charm after too many repeat appearances, I make muhamarra, a Turkish spread made with roasted peppers and walnuts, then thickened with ground crackers and sharpened with pomegranate molasses. It can stand on its own smeared across pita, lavash, or Scandinavian hardbread, or it can be served alongside chicken, beef, or strong-flavored fish. Best of all, muhamarra grows better with age, peaking after three days or so in the refrigerator.

Two key muhammara ingredients may require a bit of searching: the aforementioned sweet-tart pomegranate molasses, and Aleppo pepper, a smoky, fruity-tasting, Turkish-grown pepper with a slight kick. Both may be found at your local Middle Eastern specialty food store; if not, try New York’s Kalustyan’s, a clearinghouse for innumerable spices and specialty ingredients. (The last time I shopped there online, I spent $50 on spices alone.)

When I do actually apply heat to food, I often opt for moving outside to the grill (it’s amazing what you can cook on the grill with a bit of pluck and determination) and make it count by “doubling up,” or preparing enough food for several meals. For example, one of my favorite summer dishes is simple grilled chicken, which can be a meal unto itself or the starting point for any number of sandwiches, salads, or pasta dishes. I always cook at least two birds: one to eat straight away, the other to be consumed in the days to come.

[%image twochickens width=375 float=left caption="Grill two chickens and you'll have meat for several meals."] 

To keep grilling easy, I spatchcock the chickens, or butterfly them by slicing out the backbone and smashing the birds flat. In this fashion, the chickens can be grilled over indirect heat in a covered grill without a lick of supervision. Tossing a few hickory chunks onto the coals contributes a welcome sweet, smoky flavor.
Overnight brining before grilling, or soaking the chickens in a salt, sugar, and water solution, ensures that the meat is moist and flavorful — and remains that way even after a few days in the refrigerator. To bring out the best in the chickens, I grind a few bay leaves and a couple of heads of garlic with the salt and sugar; the strong flavors suffuse the brine and thereby penetrate the meat to the bone.
Finally, the little cooking I do inside — besides simmering pasta — usually involves legumes for bean salads, which fare well after a few days of repose. Typically I choose lentils, which cook quickly, and dress them with a simple vinaigrette. The lentils are versatile; serve them with grilled meat, poultry, and seafood, or gussy them up with additional vegetables or assertive ingredients like nuts or cheeses (pungent feta seems particularly summery to me). 

I also like to load on whatever fresh herbs are most abundant in the garden at the moment and add a minced vegetable or two for a textural counterpoint. Fennel is a good option; it's less strident than celery, plays well with other summer flavors, and maintains its crisp texture well.


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Green French du Puy lentils are the best choice, because they retain their compact shape well and have a more clearly defined flavor than other varieties. I cook them in well-salted water with a couple of bay leaves and a few garlic cloves to ensure that they are fully seasoned. The soft poached garlic can then be mashed to a paste and used to thicken and flavor the vinaigrette. (Raw garlic grows far too rough for my taste after a day or two.)

Hot weather or busy schedule, there’s no need to eat poorly or resort to takeout meals. A little planning can help make the best of the year’s best produce — and weather.

p(bio). Matthew Card is a contributing editor to Cook’s Illustrated and writes a monthly column for the Oregonian.

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