By Christie Popp
July is officially summer. The schools that end late have now closed for vacation. And those schools that start in early August (like my kids’) have yet to begin. July is the month when we can all breathe a communal sigh of relief. July is carefree and easy. July is when we want nothing more than to pull our hair up into pony tails, slip on some flip flops, and sip something cold.
Summer cooking should be equally as carefree. In the summer, I rely on basics—the food equivalent of a cotton sundress and flip-flops. For me, those basics are: olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. It is simple, but sublime. With the bounty of fresh produce in the summer, you can pack a lot of flavor with very little work.
Here are a few examples of dishes we’ve made recently using our basics:
- Salad greens tossed with a squeeze of lemon, a drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper
- Thinly sliced cucumbers tossed with some torn basil and our basics
- Lightly breaded (in flour and polenta) and fried zucchini, squash blossoms, or cauliflower finished with lemon juice, salt and pepper
- Pan fried fish or chicken thighs, finished with a sauce of lemon juice, lemon zest, olive oil, salt and pepper
- Green beans, sautéed with minced garlic in olive oil, finished with torn basil, lemon juice, salt and pepper
You get the picture! With these basics on hand, dinners are quick, light, and easy to improvise. But you didn’t come here for this. You want recipes! Here are three of our summer favorites:
Carpaccio is an Italian dish made of thinly sliced beef or fish, usually finished with lemon juice and herbs. This is a vegetarian version that is fantastic as a first course salad or as a side. The recipe itself is simple, but it does need about 20-30 minutes to sit. I usually do this first, while I prepare the rest of the meal, so the zucchini is ready to eat when everything else is finished. My kids love zucchini made this way. I hope your family does, too.
I don’t usually follow a recipe, but this is an approximation of what I do:
- 1 1⁄2-2 lbs of small to medium sized zucchini
- 3⁄4 - 1 tbsp of salt
- 1 lemon
- 1⁄4 cup chopped basil, mint, or Italian flat-leaved parsley.
- olive oil
Thinly slice the zucchini (you want these to be very thin), with a sharp knife, a mandolin if you have one, or some sort of mechanized slicer (I only have a knife, and it works perfectly fine). Put the sliced zucchini in a strainer or colander in the sink or over a bowl and sprinkle with the salt.
Toss the zucchini to make sure every piece has been salted. Let the zucchini sit for at least 20 minutes. The salt will draw out the moisture from the zucchini. After it has set, squeeze out as much liquid as possible from the zucchini and put on a serving dish. Squeeze over it: 1⁄2 of a lemon (adding more to taste), a light drizzle of olive oil, herbs, and pepper (to taste). Enjoy!
Fresh Cherry Tomato Salad
I don’t have a fancy name for this dish. All I can tell you is that it is amazing. We sometimes eat it as a first (salad) course, as a side dish, or (more often) tossed with pasta.
- 1 quart (2 pints) of cherry tomatoes
- 2 medium sized cloves of garlic
- 2 tablespoons of Olive Oil (plus more to taste)
- 1-2 tablespoons of Lemon juice (more to taste)
- 1⁄2 cup chopped basil (more if you like!)
Cut one clove of garlic in half. With the cut sides of the garlic, rub a large serving bowl (this imparts a mellow garlic flavor), paying particular attention to the bottom. Discard garlic.
Optional: finely mince the second clove of garlic and add to the bowl. Halve tomatoes (or quarter larger sized) and add to the bowl. Add about a 1⁄2 teaspoon of salt, and 2 tablespoons of olive oil.
Let the tomatoes sit for at least 10 minutes (preferably up to 20). The salt will draw out the moisture from the tomatoes, and the juice will absorb the flavor from the garlic. When you are ready to eat, toss with 1-2 tablespoons of lemon juice (more to taste), more salt to taste, pepper, basil, and another drizzle of olive oil. Serve and enjoy!
To serve with pasta, do as above, except reserve the basil. Cook to al dente 1 lb of pasta in salted water (preferably spaghetti or penne). Once the pasta is cooked, reserve 1⁄2 cup of pasta water.
Drain pasta and add to tomatoes. Toss a few times to spread the juices around. If you need more moisture, add a little pasta water (a tablespoon at a time) and/or extra olive oil. The pasta should be just shy of cooked so it will absorb the liquid from the tomatoes. Add in basil and 1 ball of fresh mozzarella (the kind still in its liquid) that has been cubed into small pieces. Toss well and add additional salt and pepper as needed.
My husband REALLY loves steak. And if you ask him what the best meal he has ever eaten is, he will likely point to the year we spent Thanksgiving in Florence, Italy, and he ordered the bistecca fiorentina, or Florentine steak at a small family restaurant. A true Florentine steak is made with a special kind of beef you usually only find in Tuscany. In the United States, the dish is most often approximated with a porterhouse or T-bone. I, however, have used this same process with any manner of cuts: sirloin, flat-iron, flank, ribeye, etc... While it is best with a T-bone or even a bone-in ribeye, it works well with whatever you have on hand.
The steak should only be cooked to rare or medium-rare for “authenticity” (and also because well done steaks have the texture of old shoes). This recipe is intended to feed four. Unless one of those people is my husband. Then it might feed 3.
- 2 lbs of steak (preferably Porterhouse or T-Bone)
- 1 clove of garlic
- 1⁄2 lemon
- olive oil
Halve your garlic clove. Using the cut side, rub down the steak(s) all over, including the sides and the bones (if bone-in steak). Generously salt and pepper the steak. Heat a well-seasoned cast iron skillet (or a grill if you have one!), on high until it is very hot. Add the steak.
Here is the key: you do not want to crowd the pan, so you may need to cook each separately if you have more than one steak. And, very importantly, do not move the steak while it cooks. Turn down the heat to medium-high and cook for 4-5 minutes on each side until rare to medium rare in the middle. This will be more time for a thicker steak, and much less for a thin cut. See below for my tip. When finished, remove to a cutting board or serving platter, squeeze with lemon juice and drizzle with olive oil. Let rest for at least 5 -10 minutes. Resting the meat makes it more tender and juicier than if you cut it right away. After it has rested, slice thinly and serve.
Tip on meat: I learned this from a cooking show. One way to know when a piece of meat is cooked to desired temperature is to compare it to the fatty pad of your thumb.
- Take your thumb and touch it to your index finger. Now feel that fatty pad—that feeling is equivalent to rare steak.
- Touch your middle finger—that’s medium rare.
- The ring finger is medium to medium well,
- and the pinky finger is well-done.
As you are cooking, you can poke the top of the steak (in the thickest part) and compare it to your thumb!