Welcome once again to the dog days of summer — though it is beginning to look like we are experiencing the dog months of summer this year. With that in mind, our next series of cooking classes will focus on cool cooking in the heat of summer, which means foods that need little preparation and little if any time on a stove or in an oven. Best of all, these dishes are light fare with great flavor and freshness — and very adaptable to your own creative machinations. Though the classes will be repeated throughout the markets over the next few weeks, you can try these recipes for gazpacho, an uncooked tomato sauce and pesto on your own. These recipes give you room and encouragement to be creative — I love corn added to the sauce, crab added to the gazpacho, and pesto added to the tomato sauce.
Another part of improving your skills in the kitchen is knowing what to have on hand at all times to expand your repertoire. For a well-stocked pantry, you will need some items that regretfully cannot be bought at area farmers’ markets. But having these items will enable you to cook up those market ingredients on any spur of the moment. They are also the kinds of ingredients that enable you to successfully create a menu of complimentary dishes or a one-dish meal or casserole that needs something more than just the main ingredients to hold it together.
Start with a good vinegar and maybe even two or three. Pick out a good wine vinegar and move on from there to include some flavored ones also. And it never hurts to have some good old cider vinegar around too — for potato salad if nothing else. Then I recommend that you choose a good quality extra-virgin olive oil that tastes good to you, because this is the one you will use for salad dressings and also to dribble over a completed dish to pop the flavor. For most of your cooking, Berio pure olive oil is just fine, and it also works for those salad dressings that will play a minor rather than starring role in a dish. I also use a combination of olive and canola oils in my homemade mayonnaise that I always have on hand.
Next you want to keep lemons, limes and oranges on hand for marinades and salad dressings and to flavor dessert sauces — these are the secret ingredients that add summer brightness to foods.
In the refrigerator, keep on hand a good-quality ketchup and some Dijon mustard for marinades and BBQ sauces. In the pantry have some Worcestershire sauce and good soy sauce for flavoring anything from crab cakes to gazpacho to summer vegetable sautes. And of course you are going to need herbs — buy them fresh when you can, grow them yourself or check out the herb mixes that may be sold at your market. If you do not cook from scratch every night, buying mixed herbs and spices is a great way to save money on individual spices that have skyrocketed in recent years – and to eliminate waste.
I always have a pepper grinder handy, and I confess I am now using sea salt for just about all my cooking — though not my baking. It really does do a better job of bringing out the flavor of the food without overwhelming it with saltiness.
And then there is the cheese. I always have a variety of cheeses that I use on a regular basis including American cheddar, Australian cheddar when I can get it, Parrano and Parmesan Reggiano. Less often I will buy fresh mozzarella because it does not keep so well — and when I have it on hand I will cook something that uses it. If the cheese assortment begins to get moldy, I trim them up and throw them all in the food processor with that mayo I have on hand and make pimento cheese.
In the meat keeper in the refrigerator, I also have either some really good and lean smoked bacon or a package of country ham bits and pieces. I use these almost as much in the summer as winter for flavoring because it does not take much to add aroma and flavor to a vegetable dish like the summer succotash recipe I like so much. And garlic! I always have garlic in the crisper next to the citrus fruits in the other one.
That would appear to be the full circle, though I have probably forgotten something. Reply to let us know what you have on hand.
That’s about it — not too many items for even the smallest kitchen — and I have one of those so I should know. And it’s all you need to cook on the fly with whatever you bring home from the market, just like a French country cook or a modern California chef. All good cooks start with the basics and take off from there. Have a great flight — no need to play it safe on this runway.
See you at the market!
Photo by tomatoes and friends