Advice from a magical kitchen to yours—
Dear Kitchen Witch,
What do you do when it’s too hot to cook? I’m on a budget and prefer to stick with homemade meals, but in a heat wave sometimes I succumb to takeout. I just can’t stand turning on the oven and sometimes it seems too hot even to think of food options—nothing sounds good. Help!
—I Cannot Oven
Oh, I feel you. I live in a place where anything under 95F in summertime is unseasonably cool, so I’ve been in your precise pickle many times. For me, the heat sometimes affects not just my brains, sapping me of creative ideas, but also my appetite, so that nothing sounds good. For me a big trick for beating this is to do food prep early in the day when it’s less scorching (if not actually cool) and then chill the food so that it’s ready to eat later. Cold soups are an absolutely brilliant way to do this, and as a bonus, they require little or no up-front cooking, either. The classic Spanish gazpacho is the king of cold soups, in my opinion, but there are so many other options, like cucumber and spinach. A great way to add a little filling protein to a cold soup is to float some shrimp in them. Go ahead and buy your shrimp already cooked; proteins are the things that most reliably demand the application of heat, and there’s no shame in bypassing that step.
Likewise, you can buy and chill a rotisserie chicken, then shred to make chicken salad or chicken sandwiches (a sandwich for dinner is another great way to beat the heat) or chicken tacos. Speaking of tacos: Another way to get that appetite back is to tempt it with spice and sourness. Use salsas, relishes, and dips to add lots of flavor and interest to simple summer dinners, as with this snappy cucumber salsa. In general, foods with lots of water in them—tomatoes, watermelon, cucumbers—will make a nice refreshing salad: witness the classic watermelon and feta (salty! Tangy! Protein sneaked in!) or even more classic caprese, built on the same principles.
One of my summer go-tos is a chopped salad with tuna and lemon, which I make in big batches. I chop up a whole head of celery, a couple of red peppers, whatever other crunchy vegetables I have around, and a serrano chile or two, and toss with oil-packed tuna, white beans, tons of flat-leaf parsley, and lemon juice. I was actually eating this very salad for lunch as I sat down to work on this column and, honestly, I might have it again for dinner. If you aren’t into tuna, a similar-but-different spin with smoked trout, fennel, and endive is a great alternative.
If you can stand to apply heat to food early in the day and then make up other kinds of salads, quinoa, rice, farro, couscous, potatoes, and of course pasta all make good bases for hearty salads, like this beauty with mozzarella and mint. Use your imagination and whatever you have on hand to make up a dinner-worthy main-dish salad. If even that amount of cooking is a bridge too far, allow me to recommend the standby of (canned) black beans, raw corn kernels, lime, avocado, tomatoes, and jalapenos and cilantro, served with chips.
Sometimes there comes a day when one absolutely must cook in summer, for whatever reason: mandatory office chili cook-off, in-laws coming to dinner, taking a meal to someone who just had a baby, whatever comes up. In such cases, I have been known to literally cook outside—and not just on a grill. (I know no better way to get hotter on a 100-degree summer day than by standing outside, in the sun, over a 500+-degree grill!) I mean I sometimes set my slow cooker outside, on my covered deck, and use it to braised beef for tacos or the like. This avoids even the minimal degree of heating up the house that can occur with a standalone appliance.
Finally, I would remind you that (like the late, great Laurie Colwin’s cousin’s wife, cited in one of her essays), you do not need to apply heat to food if you know how to shop. There is absolutely nothing wrong and quite a lot right, every once in a while, with a dinner of charcuterie or salami, cheese, bread, and pickles and a little salad, or one of gravlax and rye crackers, or dip dinner with all your favorite dips and crudites and crackers. And, if it is really just so hot that you truly cannot even, once a summer or so there’s nothing like ice cream for dinner. Isn’t that what we all hoped adulthood would be like?
Every week, the Kitchen Witch answers your culinary questions with an eye towards seasonal, sustainable cooking. Ask your question by email firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ECkitchenwitch.