5 Easy Courses

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

My friends Allan Warnick and Rex Arrasmith don't cook. They either eat out or eat very simply at home--and I mean very simply, as in bowl of cereal or toast and jam or the occasional very daring tortilla and cheese.

Thus, they manage to have an enviably equipped and sparkling kitchen where grease never spatters, pasta water never boils over and the cutting board is as unscratched as the day it first slid into its slot under the counter.

Intermittently, the men have had culinary aspirations. And so the lower cupboards hold state-of-the-art cookware--all of which looks exactly as it does on display at Williams-Sonoma, albeit with fewer fingerprints. Upper cupboards display a small, varied collection of impeccably charming china--eternally unchipped because of complete disuse.

The granite table in the garden has handsome aluminum chairs with pretty custom-made seat cushions, but the only visitors here are tiny blossoms that have drifted down from the wisteria and potato vines overhead.

Such unused bounty is surely against nature, or at least my nature. Clearly, somebody had to start cooking just to get the ball rolling. I talked Rex and Allan into giving a little party. I'd come up with recipes, I promised, that would be quick and easy enough for men who never cooked--should they ever be tempted to attempt entertaining on their own.

I proposed a summer meal, light and full of seasonal summer ingredients--tomatoes, summer fruit, fresh herbs--to be eaten at mid-day or early twilight when their spectacular garden could be fully seen and appreciated.

Of course, after all of my talk of lightness, the first dish I thought of--and the thought refused go away--was a rich, buttery tomato gratin. It is simply the best recipe for cooked tomatoes I've ever had, and the better the tomato, the more sublime the results. I learned this dish from my friend Lily in New York, who has access all summer long to those great, meaty, wildly flavorful New Jersey beefsteak tomatoes.

I've watched countless times as she slices the tomatoes, dots the butter, pours in the cream, smooths over the bread crumbs--never once measuring. She does not care if one time the tomatoes are soupy and another time the sauce is thick with bread crumbs.

Indeed, the varying water content of tomatoes alone can cause such disparate results. Still, none of this matters: soupy or merely moist, this gratin is sensational.

Once assembled, it disappears into the oven for up to an hour, giving the cooks ample time to assemble the rest of the meal. When everything else is table-ready, out comes the king of all tomato dishes.

Because the gratin is so rich, I tried to make everything else light and simple. I drew inspiration from Allan and Rex's garden: Thanks to the lemon tree and a preternaturally healthy rosemary bush, I came up with citrus-marinated albacore on rosemary skewers. I also drew inspiration from recalling dishes that Rex and Allan especially liked in the restaurants we'd visited. I could not hope to re-create Spago chef Lee Hefter's multilayered salad with beets and sauteed goat cheese with hazelnuts, but I came up with simple hors d'oeuvres I dubbed Beet Oreos. I just layered slices of roasted beets with soft goat cheese and, once they'd chilled and firmed up, cut them into quarters and stuck them, carefully, with toothpicks so we could have them as finger food without any pinkened fingertips.

I originally planned and tried a gelatin made with freshly squeezed orange juice and thick peach slices, but with the tomatoes and the citrus-marinated fish, the meal was growing too acidic.

Then, inspired by Allan's adoration for the watermelon gelatin dessert at L'Arancino and by the serendipity of finding watermelon juice in my nearby supermarket, I opted for a soft-pink melon mold, which is a great deal more delicate and subtle than the orange. It's a great seed-free way to enjoy summer's biggest fruit. I added a quick tossed green-leaf salad to the menu for contrasting color.

For dessert, I remembered a fruit focaccia I had at yet another restaurant, the long-gone and much missed little coffeehouse-cafe called Axe in Santa Monica. I remembered a chewy crust, fresh and juicy summer fruits and whole sprigs of rosemary. The rosemary, olive oil and fruit carry through other flavors in the meal. And in this dish, as in the tomato gratin, summer fruits were baked in hot ovens in a way that condensed and heightened the flavors. Plus, each tart has the depth of color and voluptuousness of a small still-life oil painting.

The meal required some preparation ahead of time: Focaccia dough was started the night before. Gelatin was made in less than 10 minutes right after breakfast--and needed to be stirred and have fruit added after a couple of hours in the fridge. The fish was cut into chunks and set in the marinade after breakfast, but this step can be done anywhere from two to 24 hours in advance. The actual prep--threading the meat on skewers--is so quick and simple that even an inveterate noncook (viz., Allan) made a good quick job of it. A garden of edible flowers made garnishing a thrill.

Seven of us sat down to eat at midafternoon, surrounded by lilies and roses and a hillside of nasturtium. Blossoms drifted down onto our laps. Birds sang. Water trickled. The shadows grew longer. We slowly and surely ate everything on the table. We were hideously relaxed.

Then, Allan looked around. "Where's our waiter?" he asked. "We want dessert."

MENU

BEET OREOS

CITRUS-MARINATED YELLOWTAIL OR ALBACORE ON ROSEMARY SKEWERS

FRESH TOMATO GRATIN STEW

WATERMELON GELATIN

SUMMER FRUIT FOCACCIA WITH ROSEMARY

CITRUS-MARINATED YELLOWTAIL OR ALBACORE ON ROSEMARY SKEWERS

This is an incredibly easy, satisfying recipe. The rosemary adds a robustness of flavor and a charming, ornamental touch. If you can't find 10-inch rosemary stems, use more of shorter length, putting fewer pieces of fish on each. If the rosemary is too soft to pierce the fish, make a hole in each piece of fish with a wooden skewer, then thread rosemary through.

3/4 cup peanut oil

1/2 cup orange juice

1/4 cup lemon juice

1/4 cup lime juice

Salt, pepper

1 large clove garlic, minced

2 pounds albacore or yellowtail steaks, cut in 1-inch chunks

8 (10-inch) rosemary stems

Combine oil, orange, lemon and lime juices, salt and pepper to taste and garlic. Add fish and refrigerate.

Strip all but about 1 inch of needles from rosemary stems. Wash stems and soak in water about 5 minutes.

Slip fish chunks onto skewer stems. Return skewered fish to marinade and continue marinating until ready to grill, at least 1 hour or overnight.

Grill over hot coals, on grill pan or any griddle about 5 minutes, turning so all 4 sides get heat. Brush fish with marinade while cooking.

6 to 8 servings. Each of 8 servings:

162 calories; 71 mg sodium; 41 mg cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 1 gram carbohydrates; 21 grams protein; 0.01 gram fiber.

SUMMER FRUIT FOCACCIA WITH ROSEMARY (Schiacciata)

This will make use of a few of the rosemary sprigs you'll have left over from making the skewers. This is also good with a little freshly made sorbet or vanilla ice cream. You may substitute another cup of unbleached all-purpose flour for the 1 cup of whole wheat flour. A peel is a large flat paddle used to slide pizza or breads into a hot oven.

FOCACCIA DOUGH

1 (1/4-ounce) package dry yeast

1 1/2 cups warm water

2 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 cup whole wheat flour

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for oiling bowl and brushing tops of dough

2 teaspoons salt

FRUIT

1 cup apricot preserves

1/4 cup orange juice

4 peaches, quartered

8 to 12 large strawberries, halved

1 small bunch purple or red grapes, 24 to 32 grapes

16 small sprigs rosemary

1/4 cup olive oil

Raw sugar

FOCACCIA DOUGH

Mix yeast, 1/2 cup warm water and 3/4 cup all-purpose flour in large bowl. Scatter remaining all-purpose flour and whole wheat flour over yeast mixture. Do not stir. Set bowl aside in warm place until yeast sponge rises through flour, about 30 minutes.

Add remaining 1 cup warm water, olive oil and salt and stir to mix. Turn dough out onto lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth and elastic, 4 to 5 minutes.

Shape dough into loose ball, place in oiled bowl and turn to coat well with oil. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in warm place until dough does not spring back when lightly pressed, about 1 hour.

Punch down dough, reshape into ball and refrigerate, covered with plastic wrap, 8 hours or overnight.

Turn dough out onto lightly floured work surface and gently press out air. Cut dough into 8 equal pieces. Shape each piece into ball and place at least 4 inches apart on heavily floured tray or work surface. Lightly brush tops with oil, cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled in volume, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

Place baking stone or heavy rimless baking sheet in oven and preheat to 425 degrees.

When dough has risen, stretch and flatten each ball with floured hands into 5-inch flat disc. Place 3 inches apart on preheated stone or baking sheet. If using baking stone, put focaccia disks on peel sprinkled with cornmeal and slide onto stone in oven.

FRUIT

Heat apricot preserves and orange juice over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until mixture boils. Cook until slightly thickened, about 2 minutes.

Wash and dry fruit. Brush center of each focaccia disc with melted preserves. Arrange 2 peach quarters, 2 or 3 strawberry halves, 3 or 4 grapes and 2 rosemary sprigs on each focaccia disc.

Brush fruit and pastry edges lightly with olive oil, then with melted preserves. Sprinkle raw sugar lightly over fruit.

Bake at 425 degrees until fruit is cooked and crust is golden, 15 to 20 minutes. Serve with sorbet or gelato.

8 servings. Each serving without sorbet or gelato:

439 calories; 597 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 11 grams fat; 80 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 1.39 grams fiber.

FRESH TOMATO GRATIN STEW

This is one of the best recipes for tomatoes I've ever found. The results vary, depending on the density of the tomato: Sometimes the casserole is very soupy and is best served in small bowls; other times, the bread crumbs absorb most of the liquid and form a thick sauce. The more you make it, the more you'll get a feel for it. No matter. This gratin is always delicious.

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter

4 pounds tomatoes, cored and sliced about 1/2 inch thick

Coarse sea salt or kosher salt

Freshly ground pepper

1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream

2 cups fresh bread crumbs

2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves

Grease bottom and sides of 2 1/2-quart oval baking dish with 1 tablespoon butter. Reserve 1 tablespoon butter. Place 1 layer tomato slices in bottom of dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and dot with some of remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Make another layer of tomatoes, sprinkle with salt and pepper and dot with butter. Continue layers and seasonings until all tomatoes are used. Press down firmly on final layer. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and dot with butter. Pour cream over tomatoes until it just starts showing along sides at top.

Melt 1 tablespoon butter in skillet. Stir in bread crumbs and toss to coat with butter. Stir in thyme. Sprinkle evenly over top of tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper.

Bake at 375 degrees until top is nicely browned, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

6 servings. Each serving:

345 calories; 213 mg sodium; 103 mg cholesterol; 31 grams fat; 17 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 1.50 grams fiber.

BEET OREOS

These are simple, if exacting, to make, but the results are quite eye-catching. Be sure to keep the two colors of beets away from each other because the red beets will bleed onto the yellow ones. The goat cheese will turn a bright, beautiful pink. If your goat cheese is not easily spreadable, thin with a few drops of milk or cream. Beet Oreos can also be served as a colorful topping on a green salad.

2 red beets about 2 1/2 inches in diameter

2 yellow or orange beets about 2 1/2 inches in diameter

1/4 pound soft goat cheese

Scrub beets. Remove all but 1 inch of tops and taproot. Wrap beets individually in foil and roast at 400 degrees until very tender, about 1 hour.

Peel beets, keeping colors separate. Let cool. Slice 1/4 inch thick. Stack slices of same color and trim to uniform size or cut with 2-inch biscuit cutter.

Spread goat cheese 1/4 inch thick on 1 beet slice and top with different-colored beet slice to make little sandwich. Push down and wipe off any excess goat cheese around edge with paper towel. Goat cheese layer should be as thick as beet slices. An alternative: Stack 1 beet slice, goat cheese layer, different-colored beet slice, goat cheese layer and beet slice of original color to make triple-decker sandwich. Repeat with remaining beet slices and goat cheese. Chill.

When Oreos are firm, slice carefully into quarters with very sharp, fine knife being careful not to push cheese out sides. Place toothpick carefully in each quarter.

6 servings. Each serving:

75 calories; 108 mg sodium; 9 mg cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 6 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.43 gram fiber.

WATERMELON GELATIN

Fresh fruit-juice gelatins are easy to make and far more delicate and delicious than packaged flavored gelatins. Watermelon juice can be found in most supermarkets and health food stores. I suggest adding melon, but other summer fruits--peaches, plums, grapes and nectarines--are also excellent. The pieces of fruit should be very small.

2 (1/4-ounce) packages unflavored gelatin

1/2 cup water

3 3/4 cups watermelon juice

1 tablespoon lime juice

1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar

2 to 3 cups combination of small watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew or casaba balls

Mint sprigs

Sprinkle gelatin over water and let stand 1 minute.

Combine watermelon juice, lime juice and 1/4 cup sugar in saucepan. Taste and add more sugar if needed; mixture should be very sweet at this stage because sweetness will lessen when mixture gels. Bring to boil over low heat. Remove from heat and add gelatin, stirring until gelatin is completely dissolved.

Pour into stainless steel mixing bowl and place in bowl of ice water, stirring occasionally, until consistency of egg whites, about 15 minutes. An alternative: Refrigerate until consistency of egg whites, about 2 hours. Stir to thoroughly blend fruit juices and add 2 cups melon balls. Melon balls should be suspended in gelatin.

Pour into wet 2-quart mold. Add more melon balls until desired level in mold. Chill until set, 3 to 4 hours. To serve, loosen gelatin around edges with knife and run bottom and sides under warm water until gelatin jiggles slightly in mold. Unmold and garnish with melon balls and mint.

6 servings. Each serving:

102 calories; 5 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 24 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0.16 gram fiber.

INGREDIENTS

STAPLES

Bread for crumbs

Butter

Garlic

Unbleached all-purpose flour

Whole wheat flour

Unflavored gelatin

Lemons

Limes

Olive oil

Peanut oil

Freshly ground pepper

Salt

Coarse sea salt

Raw sugar

Dry yeast

SHOPPING LIST

2 pounds albacore or yellowtail steaks

2 red beets

2 yellow beets

1/4 pound soft goat cheese

1 pint heavy whipping cream

1 bunch purple or red grapes

1/2 watermelon

2 (16-ounce) bottles watermelon juice

Cantaloupe, honeydew and/or casaba melons

1 bunch mint

Orange juice

4 peaches

1 (12-ounce) jar apricot preserves

8 (10-inch) rosemary stems plus 16 small sprigs

1 pint strawberries

1 bunch thyme

4 pounds tomatoes

COUNTDOWN

Afternoon or evening before: Make focaccia dough, let rise, punch down and refrigerate overnight.

4 hours before: Roast beets.

3 hours 45 minutes before: Prepare marinade. Cut albacore into chunks and begin marinating in refrigerator.

3 1/2 hours before: Make watermelon gelatin base. Place bowl in ice water to thicken mixture.

3 hours 15 minutes before: Roll focaccia dough into balls and let rise.

3 hours before: Scoop out melons into small balls. Add melon balls to thickened gelatin, pour into mold and refrigerate.

2 1/2 hours before: Soak rosemary stems in water, then thread albacore on stems and return to refrigerator to continue marinating.

2 hours 15 minutes before: Assemble beet Oreos and refrigerate.

1 hour 45 minutes before: Assemble and bake fruit focaccia.

1 hour 15 minutes before: Assemble tomato gratin.

1 hour before: Bake tomato gratin.

30 minutes before: Slice beet Oreos into quarters.

15 minutes before: Unmold gelatin.

10 minutes before: Grill albacore skewers.

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Cook's Tips

It's best to use day-old bread when making fresh bread crumbs. Tear bread into pieces and pulse in blender or food processor until coarse crumbs are formed. Melt about 1 tablespoon butter in a skillet, stir in the bread crumbs and toss until they are evenly coated. For the Tomato Gratin recipe, stir in the thyme, remove the bread crumbs from the heat and sprinkle on the casserole.

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