The secret to cooking with your favourite summer produce: Keep it simple

WHEN we sit down to eat this time of year, we should toast farmers rather than cooks. They’ve done the heavy lifting, and their produce, in all its ripe glory, allows us home cooks to do so little and get so much in return. Since I prefer dishes that require minimal effort, summer is my favourite time to be in the kitchen.

Like all things that come and go, summer produce is best celebrated at its peak. Which is right now.

My beloved of-the-moment ingredients, from juicy tomatoes to fistfuls of soft herbs, invite you to go in so many directions. Whether you bake muffins studded with nectarines, or marinate tomatoes with lots of garlic and red pepper flakes (and whether you toss the tomatoes with pasta or use them as a bed for grilled fish), the recipes that follow put the bounty front and centre.

They also offer variations, so those muffins can be made with cherries and almonds, or even be vegan and gluten-free. For the tomatoes, you can swap garlic for ginger, vinegar for fish sauce and basil for cilantro. The effect is something completely different, while the method is exactly the same (and so easy, to boot). How about that?

A bit more about the Garlicky Marinated Tomatoes.

While you never cook the tomatoes, warming the garlic and red pepper flakes in oil makes all the difference. That bit of heat allows the flavours to bloom and take over. The tomatoes then sit in the slightly warm bath until they relax back to room temperature. Combined with the natural juices, plus fresh herbs, the ethereal mixture tastes far more complex than it was to prepare.

Then, use the tomatoes on any- and everything. Turn them into a rustic pasta sauce. Top them with grilled fish, chicken, shrimp or eggs (poached ones are particularly nice). Or use them as the topper, crowning grilled bread, sliced mozzarella or crumbled goat cheese. You can even blend leftovers with a chopped onion and a pepper and then chill it down for an easy gazpacho.

And then we have sweet corn.

My main idea is Crispy, Smoky Skillet Corn, inspired by an old recipe in Lee Bailey’s seminal cookbook “Country Weekends”. Lee had you cut the kernels from the cobs, scrape the milky liquid, mix the whole lot with flour and bake it in a hot cast-iron skillet. I use cornmeal in place of flour to keep the flavour at full volume (bonus: it keeps the side dish gluten-free, if that’s important to you) and cook it in a skillet on my outdoor grill.

Anything to keep the oven off, if possible. Plus, you get all that wonderful smoke flavour. The result is a crumbly corn cake that’s so crisp on the bottom and tender on top; the combination is simply heaven.

One variation is to grate the corn rather than slice off the kernels. It’s a bit of a job, but the result is a creamy mixture almost like a corn pudding or spoon bread. The final variation forgoes cooking altogether: You leave the kernels raw and toss them with a spicy mixture of pickled jalapeños and their brine, along with fresh cilantro and lime juice. Try this on top of grilled steak or a baked sweet potato.

Every so often, the oven is worth turning on. Try baking Nectarine Corn Muffins first thing in the morning – you can make the batter the previous night – before the heat of the day kicks in. Not only will this be kinder to your air conditioning, but you’ll also have the most tender muffins in time for your coffee.

The batter is incredibly simple and holds any soft fruit beautifully. The vegan, gluten-free variation works just as well.

Soft herbs are irresistible in summer, whether you grow them in your yard or a window box, or pick them up by the armful at the farmers market.

I’m talking Italian parsley, basil, mint, chives, tarragon, cilantro and chervil. I love using them in large quantities in just about everything, including a brown rice salad studded with almonds and raisins, rich pestos and creamy salad dressings.

Last, there’s summer squash, which even has “summer” in its name. It’s one of the most versatile items I know, and I think it’s often underrated. Grate it into simple fritters that turn golden and crisp or grill the squash and top it with crunchy pistachios and fragrant mint.

Or do what I do nearly every night: Slice it thin, toss it with olive oil and lemon, sprinkle it with salt and parsley and add a bit of shaved Parmesan.

A knife, a board and a bowl are all you need. It’s perfect with a piece of chicken or a hot dog off the grill, alongside eggs in the morning, or on its own in a bowl on a porch with an iced tea nearby, condensation dripping down the outside of the glass.

From my kitchen to yours, it’s summer. – Text and Photos by The Washington Post



Crispy, Smoky Skillet Corn (four servings)


The secret to this corn is to get your cast-iron skillet piping hot. Whether you use an outdoor grill or a hot oven, the pan’s heat is essential to creating the irresistibly crisp crust on the corn.


Ingredients


Six ears corn, shucked

1/3 cup coarsely ground cornmeal

Two teaspoons kosher salt

One tablespoon of unsalted butter, olive oil or canola oil)


Steps


Place an eight-inch cast-iron skillet on an outdoor grill set to medium-high or in a 425-degree oven to heat up for at least 10 minutes.

Cut the kernels off the corn cobs and place them in a large bowl.

Use the blunt edge of your knife to scrape the milky liquid from the cobs into the same bowl; reserve the cobs for another use, if desired. Add the cornmeal and salt to the bowl and stir well to combine.

Place the bacon fat in the scorching-hot skillet and tilt the skillet so that the fat coats the bottom and sides. Add the corn mixture and pat down in an even layer. Cover the grill; cook for 15 minutes, until the top of the corn is bright yellow and the underside has formed a beautiful, crispy crust. Or roast (middle rack) in the oven for about 30 minutes.

Use a round-edged knife to loosen the edges of the corn, and a flexible spatula, as needed, and carefully invert the corn onto a serving platter. Serve right away.

Nutrition | Per serving: 170 calories, 5g protein, 31g carbohydrates, 5g fat, 2g saturated fat, 0mg cholesterol, 590mg sodium, 3g dietary fibre, 10g sugar



Nectarine Corn Muffins (12 muffins)


THIS muffin batter is incredibly easy and creates tender muffins that aren’t too sweet.

Try using any type of stone fruit (including cherries) in place of, or in addition to, the nectarines.

MAKE AHEAD: The muffins can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to two days.


Ingredients


One-1/4 cups flour

1/2 cup yellow cornmeal

1/3 cup sugar

Two teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

One teaspoon kosher salt

One large egg, lightly beaten

Eight tablespoons (one stick) unsalted butter, melted

3/4 cup regular buttermilk

Eight ounces nectarines (from one large or two small), pitted and cut into 1/2-inch dice


Steps


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 12-well, standard-size muffin pan with paper liners.

Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a mixing bowl, until well incorporated.

Combine the egg, melted butter and buttermilk in a large bowl and whisk well to combine.

Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture and stir until just combined, then stir in the nectarines.

Distribute the batter evenly among the prepared muffin cups, filling them all the way to the top. Bake (middle rack) for 30 minutes, until the muffins are golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the centre of each one comes out clean.

Cool to room temperature before eating.

Nutrition | Per muffin: 180 calories, 3g protein, 23g carbohydrates, 8g fat, 5g saturated fat, 35mg cholesterol, 160mg sodium, 0g dietary fibre, 8g sugar



Brown Rice and Herb Salad (four to six servings)


When you want a substantial side dish but can’t bear the heat, try this cold rice salad – it has nearly as many herbs as there are rice kernels.

If you want to make this super fast, pick up cooked rice from a Chinese takeout restaurant or use frozen/defrosted rice.

For other ways to use tons of soft herbs, try either of the two variations.

MAKE AHEAD: The salad can be refrigerated for up to three days. Bring to room temperature before serving.


Ingredients


Four cups cooked brown rice (long- or short-grain), at room temperature

1/4 cup olive oil

Two tablespoons sherry vinegar

One teaspoon kosher salt

Three loosely packed cups soft herbs (such as Italian parsley, basil, mint, chives, tarragon, cilantro, and/or chervil), tough stems discarded, coarsely chopped

1/4 cup dried currants (may substitute raisins)

1/4 cup roasted salted almonds, coarsely chopped


Steps


Combine the rice, oil, vinegar, salt, herbs, dried currants and almonds in a large serving bowl and toss well to incorporate. Serve right away, at room temperature, or let sit covered at room temperature for up to two hours before serving.

VARIATIONS: To make about one cup of Any-Soft-Herb Pesto (vegan), combine the following ingredients in a food processor: two small chopped garlic cloves, 1/3 cup unsalted nuts and about three loosely packed cups of stemmed herbs. Pulse until finely chopped. With the motor running, drizzle in about 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, forming a rich green paste. Taste and season lightly with salt. Some of Julia Turshen’s favourite pesto combinations are pistachios and mint; walnuts, pine nuts, flat-leaf parsley and basil; and peanuts with cilantro.

To make about one 1/2 cups of Creamy Any-Soft-Herb Goddess Dressing, combine two small minced garlic cloves, about three loosely packed cups of fresh soft herbs, 1/2 cup mayonnaise, two tablespoons vinegar and two tablespoons water in a blender. Puree until smooth. Season lightly with salt.

Nutrition | Per serving (based on six; with one cup of Any-Soft-Herb Pesto in the salad; using walnuts, mint, parsley and basil): 410 calories, 7g protein, 39g carbohydrates, 26g fat, 4g saturated fat, 0mg cholesterol, 290mg sodium, 5g dietary fibre, 5g sugar

Nutrition | Per two-tablespoon serving of Creamy Any-Soft-Herb Goddess Dressing; using regular mayonnaise, mint, parsley and basil: 70 calories, 0g protein, 1g carbohydrates, 8g fat, 1g saturated fat, 5mg cholesterol, 80mg sodium, 0g dietary fibre, 0g sugar



Garlicky Marinated Tomatoes (four servings)


MAKE AHEAD: The tomatoes need to marinate at room temperature for at least 15 minutes, and up to three hours, before serving.


Ingredients


Three tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Two small cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

One pound ripe tomatoes, each cut in half if small; cored and coarsely chopped if large

One tablespoon sherry vinegar

One teaspoon kosher salt, or more as needed

One small handful fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced


Steps


COMBINE the oil, garlic and crushed red pepper flakes in a small skillet over medium heat.

Once the garlic starts to sizzle (about 30 seconds), pour the mixture into a mixing bowl, making sure to scrape the pan with a wooden spoon to get every little bit.

Add the tomatoes, vinegar and salt, stirring well to incorporate.

Taste and add more salt, as needed (tomatoes love salt).

Let the tomatoes sit for at least 15 minutes before serving, or cover them and let them sit at room temperature for up to three hours.

Right before serving, stir in the basil. The yield is about two cups.

VARIATIONS: To make Vietnamese-Style Marinated Tomatoes, add one tablespoon peeled/minced fresh ginger root to the pan along with the garlic and crushed red pepper flakes.

Substitute fish sauce for the sherry vinegar (same amount).

Just before serving, add one small handful each of coarsely chopped fresh cilantro, mint and basil (preferably Thai basil).

To make Puttanesca-Style Marinated Tomatoes, add four broken-up anchovies and two tablespoons capers to the pan along with the garlic and crushed red pepper flakes. Just before serving, add a large handful of coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley and a large handful of pitted/chopped green or black olives.

Nutrition | Per serving: 120 calories, 1g protein, 5g carbohydrates, 11g fat, 2g saturated fat, 0mg cholesterol, 290mg sodium, 1g dietary fibre, 3g sugar