CRAZY ideas are floating around on the Internet. A food blog the other day actually contended that it might be possible to eat too many raw tomatoes with fresh basil in summertime.
If Samuel Johnson were still around, he’d probably agree that anyone who is tired of tomatoes and basil is tired of life. But if he were a cook, he would see that the problem is not the ingredients but the treatment.
By mid-August, you really do want a little more out of all the fruits and vegetables that have been so blissfully satisfying for so many weeks when eaten at their most unembellished: raw in the case of tomatoes and peaches, say; hot in the case of corn and zucchini. As splendid as they are in their most natural state, they can get a little predictable. Even corn on the cob is welcome at no more than three meals in a row.
The solution is so simple it could not be more summery. Just approach anything from the farmers market with a different attitude, one you could call the sushi/baked-Alaska inspiration: Don’t cook what you usually do, and heat up the normally icy. Or simply serve anything unexpectedly. Boiled corn tastes like a whole different animal when you chill it for a soup, while the usual tomato-mozzarella salad is richer and more intense when it’s baked in a free-form gratin.
Half the magic comes from the transformative power of heat. Sauteed peaches could not be more distant relations of cold slices; just a quick pass through a skillet concentrates the sweetness and juiciness. Even an avocado will emerge from the oven with its inherent flavor intact but nuances baked in. And tomatoes are literally metamorphosed by roasting, stewing, sauteing or frying.
But the element of surprise also cannot be underestimated. Eating vegetables cold that you usually associate with melted butter is downright revivifying. Chilled corn looks just like raw corn, but the taste is a world apart, whether in a green salad with red peppers in walnut oil vinaigrette or in a salsa with tomatoes and chilies, or even in a regular old potato salad. It’s easy to forget how good corn can be in summer at winter temperature.
Serving vegetables raw that you normally encounter cooked also opens up new flavor horizons. Zucchini, for instance, has an almost nutty flavor if you bypass the steamer or saute pan and grate it into a cabbage-free coleslaw or julienne it for a salad with chives, with or without slivers of smoked duck breast.
One of my biggest revelations all summer was what cold does to fried green squash. I had sliced some pattypans, dusted them with flour, dipped them in a mixture of egg and milk and then coated them with cornmeal and fried them to a golden crisp in half an inch of olive oil. They were irresistible hot out of the skillet but stunning after a night left over in the refrigerator. The cornmeal batter kept its crispness but had more flavor, as did the sweet squash inside.
Heat heightens flavor
I sometimes joke that a big reason for choosing the cooking school I did 20-some years ago when I got the wild idea of becoming a chef was that the student-run restaurant served sauteed scallops in cream sauce with cucumbers. I had never even known you could cook a cucumber, let alone create such sensational flavor from a vegetable normally relegated to sour cream Siberia. But sauteing is almost the same idea as pickling: Heat turns a food prized for its crispness into a more flavorful side dish.
Cucumbers to be cooked just need to be cut a little more cleverly than the usual half-moons marinated in vinegar or sour cream. Slicing them into triangles makes them chunkier so that they keep their crunchiness even as the flavor melts a little. They can be simply sauteed for a couple of minutes in butter (which seems to bring out better flavor than olive oil does), but you can also add cream -- or you can toss them with a little fried pancetta for a salty, crumbly counterpoint.
Green onions are another vegetable in peak season that can benefit from a new identity. They make a superb soup with just chicken stock and cream, or they can be braised in a little butter and then pureed for an easy and untraditional side dish, spiked with a little cream. (Count on at least one big bunch per person, though; a lot goes a short way.)
Fruit is the easiest summer excess to transform through cooking, and that doesn’t only mean baking pies and mixing up fritter batter. Peaches, plums, nectarines, apricots and more can just be sliced and sauteed in butter, or they can be upgraded into a dramatic dessert by flambeing them with bourbon or another dark alcohol. A little grated lime zest and a pinch of cloves will blend with the butter and bourbon to make a heady sauce. You can serve them plain, with a spoonful of creme fraiche or in full glory over a bowl of ice cream.
Fruit is also a natural for roasting: Toss peach halves, for instance, in melted butter, sprinkle them with a little sugar and a bit of cinnamon and bake until they’re soft and oozing juice. And even berries are made for warm compotes or soups, just simmered with wine and maybe cinnamon sticks and topped off with creme fraiche.
NO matter what you read online, though, it is tomatoes and basil that are most suited to shock treatments. Oven heat will bring out sweetness in the tomatoes and an almost licorice flavor in the basil. There’s a reason Provencal cooks seem to cook tomatoes more often than slice them raw; they stuff them, broil them (naked or with a sprinkling of grated cheese such as Parmigiano-Reggiano), bake them into a tart or simply roast them. The fruit and the herb stewed together also make a quick, rich and wonderful soup or, with olives added, a dipping sauce for chunks of sturdy bread.
Not to mix art forms, but the whole idea here is the same one my consort abides by in his photography. For years he had a little reminder pasted up on his computer to read before heading out for a portrait session: “Take the subject somewhere else.” An executive away from his desk, a chef outside a kitchen made for a much more interesting, and revealing, picture.
This time of year, my little motto would be: Take the tomatoes somewhere hot and the corn somewhere cold. It doesn’t even have to take long to be transported.