We no longer have to suffer through wilting days with only a fan in the window. Air conditioning has long made Midwestern summers much more bearable.
Yet there is still a lot to be said for summer foods from that bygone age when the only thing cool was the refrigerator. Okay, maybe not a Jell-O salad. But something like that. Cool and colorful, easy to prepare ahead of time, and delicious.
Take the icebox cake, for instance. My friend Kathy Smith of Shawnee, also a great bread and cookie baker, recently whipped up a beauty with only five ingredients: chocolate wafer cookies, mascarpone, cream, sugar, and instant espresso powder. You make the icebox cake in a springform pan and let it chill, then remove the sides and cut it into cool wedges. Every smooth, creamy bite has a dark undercurrent from the chocolate and coffee.
Another favorite for hot weather is orzo salad. The tiny rice-shaped wheat pasta cooks in minutes. You combine the cooked pasta with chopped cucumber, green onions, crumbled feta cheese, and Kalamata olives, then dress it all with lemon juice and olive oil. Have it as a main dish with a grilled-and-chilled chicken breast or salmon fillet. Or just by itself.
Stuffed vegetables have been summertime stars from the American Midwest all the way to the Mediterranean, and for good reason. They’re seasonal and delicious. Stuff a large, scooped-out summer tomato with a filling of toasted breadcrumbs, fresh chopped basil, plus some of the tomato pulp and juice. Top the stuffed tomato with goat cheese, drizzle with olive oil, and put it on your smoker until the goat cheese turns bronze in about 30 minutes. Fabulous. Enjoy it that night, then refrigerate the leftovers for an easy lunch or dinner the next day.
Chilled soups like gazpacho come into their own in hot weather. Ceviche, the Peruvian dish of fresh seafood “cooked” in lime juice, is in that same family. For dessert, a cold fruit soup is as easy to whip up as a carton of yogurt and chopped, ripe fruit.
Sushi-grade seafood served raw and chilled is another great dish. Raw fish and shellfish should taste fresh, have no aroma of ammonia, and practically glisten; buy yours from a fishmonger you trust. Raw fish or shellfish should be served so that you don’t have to use a knife—oysters or clams on the half shell, thin slices of halibut or salmon, cubes of tuna.
Traditional accompaniments include extra-virgin or infused olive oils, citrus juice and zest, toasted sesame oil, aromatic herbs like dill weed, wasabi, pickled ginger, and hot sauce.
Put the wine in to chill, top off that drink with a few more ice cubes, and enjoy.