Your Summer Cooking Tool Kit
Cooks breathe a collective sigh of relief at the height of summer. All the luscious fruits and vegetables you’ve been craving for months are at their peak, and nobody wants or expects you to spend all day in the kitchen wrestling with them.
Nor do summer ingredients need it. This time of year, the best cooking is all about ease and simplicity, leaving you more time to enjoy the results of your (minimal) labor — preferably outside in the shade, sipping a cool drink.
To help you do just that, here is a guide to the techniques and ingredients you can turn to all summer long. Think of it as your tool kit. It will teach you how to grill pretty much everything. It will suggest flavor combinations that you can apply to everything from chilled blender soups to spiced nuts. And it will give you the freedom to create your own memorable dishes.
Just bear in mind that when it comes to summer cooking, less is more.
Preparing the Grill
First, the fundamentals, which you may know but which bear repeating: Learn to set up the grill in two ways, for cooking over direct heat and indirect heat, and you’ll have greater control over your food.
Direct heat is for cooking ingredients quickly right over the searing coals or gas burner. Use this method for small things that will cook through before they burn. Indirect heat is for ingredients that need slower cooking; build the fire under only half the grill (or turn on only half the burners) and cook over the empty side. If your grill has an upper rack, you can heat up the whole grill and place the meat on the upper rack (it’s far enough to count as indirect heat). For longer-cooking items, add more charcoal to the fire as it burns down. Do so with caution.
Whether you’re using direct or indirect heat, keep your eyes on the grill, moving things around as needed to speed up or slow down cooking. The edges of the grill are usually cooler than the center, so even if you’re using direct heat you can push burgers and such to the side if they start to burn.
Marinate meat (except for burgers and sausages) at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours ahead. Make sure the marinade has a little oil in it, and at least ½ teaspoon to 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt per pound of meat (use a bit more for bone-in meat and a bit less for boneless meat). Everything else is up to you: garlic, herbs, spice rubs, aromatics, citrus juices, you get the idea.
Bring big, bone-in hunks that need long cooking (ribs, bone-in pork chops, whole chicken or bone-in parts, leg of lamb, rack of lamb, beef brisket, pork loin or butt) to room temperature before lighting the grill. This could take several hours for very large pieces. Prepare the grill for indirect heat, then cook over the empty side of the grill, covered, until done. Turn the meat several times and move it around the grill as needed. Big chunks of meat can take 2 to 7 hours, while smaller pieces (chicken parts) will be done in 30 to 45 minutes.
For boneless pieces (chicken cutlets and boneless thighs, steaks, skinny tenderloins, lamb chops, burgers and sausages), grill directly over the heat until charred on both sides. You can cover the grill to slow down the fire, or leave it uncovered to encourage the fire. If the exterior of your meat starts to burn before the center cooks through, move the meat to the side of the grill.
Skewers make it easier to turn smaller pieces. Soak wooden or bamboo skewers for 30 minutes, or use metal skewers. Thread on the meat; leave plenty of space in between pieces for more char, or squish them together for less char.
To cook high-water-content vegetables (zucchini, summer squash, eggplant, peppers, onions), slice them 1/2-inch thick and lay them on the grill over direct heat in one layer (no need to oil or season them yet). Turn as they char and move them around the grill so they cook evenly. As they finish, transfer to a bowl and coat with dressing or olive oil and salt while they are still hot. Top with fresh herbs and gently toss before serving.
There are two ways to approach corn. For more of a char, strip the husk and silk, oil the ears and grill over direct heat until well charred; it won’t take more than a few minutes. For something more delicate, remove the silk but leave the husks attached at the bottom, then wrap the corn back up in the husks. Grill over direct heat for 2 to 4 minutes, until the kernels are tender.
Small, quick-cooking vegetables that may fall through the grate (asparagus, green beans, mushrooms, scallions, broccoli) can be laid out in a grill basket. Or thread them onto skewers. Or lay them perpendicular to the grate and hope they don’t roll into the fire. Oil these vegetables for flavor if you like, but you don’t have to.
Fish and Shrimp
To cook whole fish, a fish basket is handy but not necessary. Rub the fish all over with oil and salt it inside the cavity and out. Stuff the cavity with herbs and sliced lemon if you like. Grill over direct heat until the skin is crisp on both sides and the flesh is just opaque. If you’re not using a basket, use two spatulas to turn the fish. If your fish is very large, you might need to move it to the side of the grill if the outside starts to burn before it’s cooked through.
For fish fillets and steaks, oil and season the fish to taste, then grill over direct heat until grill marks appear on one side before flipping. Do not turn the fish before it easily releases from the grill, otherwise you risk mangling the flesh.
Shrimp, shelled or not, should be seasoned with salt and pepper, rubbed lightly with oil and either threaded onto skewers or put in a grill basket. Grill over direct heat, turning once.
Sprinkle this pungent herb mix on grilled, roasted or steamed anything as a garnish; stir into pasta and potato salads; use to top dips like hummus or avocado. Here is the basic formula: 1 cup herbs + 2 tablespoons garlic or onion + 1 tablespoon grated citrus or ginger. For a classic gremolata, use parsley, garlic and lemon zest. For something Mediterranean, use mint, shallot and orange zest. For a gremolata with Asian flavors, try cilantro, scallion and grated ginger.
Traditionally, you put the spiced and pulverized nut mix called dukkah in a bowl next to a bowl of olive oil, and use it for dunking bread (first in the oil, then in the dukkah). But it’s also brilliant and surprising as a garnish for cool summer soups, grilled meats and fish, or use it on top of other dips for added flavor and crunch. Here’s how to make it: Using a mortar and pestle, lightly crush ½ cup toasted nuts (hazelnuts, cashews, pistachios, almonds, peanuts or a combination), ¼ cup toasted sesame seeds, 3 tablespoons coriander seed, 2 tablespoons cumin seed, 1 tablespoon black peppercorns, 1 teaspoon dried herb (oregano, mint, cilantro) and ½ teaspoon salt.
Pat this on meat, chicken or fish at least 15 minutes or up to 1 day before grilling. In a jar, shake together 1/4 cup coarse kosher salt; 1/4 cup light brown sugar, coconut sugar or maple sugar; 2 tablespoons paprika or curry powder; and 1 tablespoon spicy powder of choice (chile powder, piment d’Espelette, hot smoked paprika or a combination of garlic and onion powder).
In summer, salad is often the main event, so take care in your combinations. Add something crisp, something juicy, something rich and something unexpected to the bowl, top lightly with your preferred dressing and toss gently.
For example, combine:
Blanched green beans + watermelon + feta + pistachios
Arugula + nectarine + avocado or mozzarella + dukkah or sesame seeds
Cucumber + cherry tomatoes + crumbled bacon + pickled peppers
Sure, these dressing will cloak your salads in style. But they do more than just that. Use them as sauces for grilled meats, fish, and vegetables; pour them over pasta and grains or slices cabbage for picnic-friendly side dishes, or use them as dips for bread or cut up vegetables.
Olive oil + acid (lemon or lime juice, or vinegar) + mustard + salt
Peanut oil + soy sauce + sesame oil + rice wine vinegar
Coconut oil + lime zest and juice + hot sauce + salt
Buttermilk + herbs + mayo + lemon juice
Yogurt + mashed garlic + herbs + salt
Making a blender soup is like making a smoothie — you need just enough liquid to keep things moving without diluting the flavors. Here’s our basic formula, which you can alter to taste: 3 cups chopped vegetables + 1 to 2 cups liquid (add it slowly; the amount depends on how thick you like your soup and how watery your vegetables are) + a few ice cubes + aromatics (garlic, ginger, scallion, onion, herbs or a combination). No matter what liquid you use, you may need to add water to thin down the soup. Season with salt and/or pepper and other spices. If you like, add a drizzle of olive oil and a dash of lemon or lime juice, or vinegar.
Combinations to try:
Cantaloupe + sheep’s milk yogurt + jalapeño + toasted cumin seeds + lemon juice
Cucumber + yogurt + basil + garlic + olive oil Cooked beets + buttermilk + red wine vinegar + dill
Tomato and cucumber + water + miso + scallion + garlic + cilantro
Chilled Corn Soup With Basil
Melissa Clark shows how to make a cold soup that stars sweet corn, tarted up with buttermilk and lime juice, spiced with garlic and scallion, and imbued with fresh herbs.
There’s a reason this salad is the king of summer picnics — it travels well, it only improves if you make it ahead and everyone loves it.
Add boiled, cutup potatoes and salt to:
Bacon and bacon grease + mustard + red onion + cider vinegar + dill = German potato salad
Pomegranate molasses + olive oil + garlic + lemon juice + mint/parsley + toasted coriander seeds = Middle Eastern-style
Buttermilk + basil and tarragon + anchovy + garlic = Green Goddess
You can turn any grain into a satisfying salad. For the best flavor, dress the grains while they are warm, but don’t toss in herbs, fruits or vegetables until the grains have cooled.
Add olive oil, lemon or lime juice and salt to:
Farro + cubed cantaloupe + cucumber + mint + ricotta salata
Quinoa + cherry tomatoes + chives + almonds + dried apricots
Rice + olives + avocado + corn + roasted red peppers