Chillin': Summer without the simmer

Raw Asparagus, Red Onion, and Pecorino Salad.
Raw Asparagus, Red Onion, and Pecorino Salad. (BEN FINK / "Cook Like a Rock Star")
Posted: August 16, 2012

"Cooking" implies the application of heat, which, during the hot summer weather we've been having, is as hard to think about as wearing a mohair sweater under a down jacket.

It also makes a mess that has to be cleaned up when everyone would rather be sipping wine or lemonade in an Adirondack chair. (This sentiment knows no season, of course, but it is more keenly felt during traditional vacation months.)

Fight back by not "cooking." Instead, "put things together." Make this the law for at least a week, maybe longer.

"Putting things together" means using no heat or as little as possible. It means never having to leave pots and pans "to soak," which is code for vainly hoping that some neatnik will come along and scrub them clean.

It means to heck with multi-course meals.

It means sandwiches for dinner, cold soups, taking advantage of supermarket-roasted chickens and the deli counter. There's no better excuse than tropical temperatures and humidity to splurge on cooked lobster, shrimp, smoked trout, smoked salmon, or crabmeat.

Also in order: experimenting with vegetables that are traditionally cooked, but recently have shown up in droves of uncooked recipes. Witness Anne Burrell's entree-worthy raw asparagus salad teamed with red onion and pecorino. Tiny bits of cooked ham could be added for those insisting upon more protein.

Soupwise, don't we all anticipate gazpacho made with the best tomatoes, seasonally best right now? Enhance this soup with cooked crabmeat or shrimp. Try blending several glugs of good balsamic vinegar into your family recipe. Add chopped or diced avocados.

Put silken to soft tofu in a bowl, drizzle on soy sauce and scatter with green onions. No heat is required here, either.

But maybe the best idea is dedicating a week to honoring the sandwich.

Modernize your childhood tuna-salad version with herbs, gourmet mustard or mayo, arugula, and the best bread available.

Split a baguette, smear it top and bottom with fig jam (or sliced fresh figs if you have them on hand), lay on prosciutto and then a handful of arugula. Or make a sandwich out of two lightly buttered pieces of high-quality white or wheat bread. Put thinly sliced radishes and arugula or baby lettuce in between. Cut off the crusts to feign elegance and hard work.

One of my favorite no-cook sandwiches is a New Orleans creation, the muffuletta, which, when compressed for a while, produces a magical meal.

I made my first muffuletta for a date many years ago.

I stowed it in a cooler under the seat of a boat while we floated around in a lake during a very hot and humid time in Philadelphia.

During that time, the olive juices soaked into the bread to transform it into a contradictory masterpiece of hard crust and soft, moist innards.

I can only vaguely picture the man who shared this muffuletta with me; he probably does not remember me.

But I so remember the hot day and its antidote, this sandwich. I'll bet he does too.

Raw Asparagus, Red Onion, and Pecorino Salad

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 bunch pencil asparagus, tough bottoms of stems removed

1 small red onion, finely diced

1 cup finely grated pecorino

1/4 to 1/2 cup red wine vinegar

Big flavorful finishing oil

Kosher salt

1. Cut the asparagus, including the tips, into very thin rounds. In a medium bowl, toss the asparagus with the red onion and pecorino.

2. Drizzle the salad with the vinegar, adjusting to your taste, the finishing oil and salt, and toss again.

- From Cook Like a Rock Star by Anne Burrell. (Clarkson Potter, 2011)

Per serving (based on 8): 93 calories, 7 grams protein, 5 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 6 grams fat, 15 milligrams cholesterol, 207 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

Grilled Crab, Mango, and Avocado Sandwich

Makes 4 sandwiches

12 ounces fresh crabmeat,  drained

3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

8 slices French bread, cut into about 1/2-inch-thick slices

1/2 cup butter

2 avocados

1 mango, peach or nectarine, thinly sliced

4 ounces Muenster cheese, thinly sliced

1. In a medium bowl, combine crab, lime juice, and pepper.

2. To grill, brush one side of each bread slice with butter. Place on a work surface, buttered side down. Slice avocados. Top 4 bread slices equally with crab mixture, avocados, mango, and cheese. Cover with remaining bread slices, buttered side up, and press together gently.

3. Place sandwiches on preheated panini grill or in a large skillet over medium heat and cook, turning once if using a skillet, for 3 to 4 minutes or until golden brown and cheese is melted. Serve immediately. Makes 4 sandwiches.

- Adapted from Alison Lewis' 400 Best Sandwich Recipes (Robert Rose, 2012)

Note: If you adhere to the doctrine that seafood does not go well with cheese and/or you do not wish to use heat of any kind, simply omit those two elements; instead, combine the crabmeat with mayonnaise, build the sandwich and enjoy it ungrilled.

Per sandwich: 688 calories, 34 grams protein, 55 grams carbohydrates, 11 grams sugar, 41 grams fat, 150 milligrams cholesterol, 942 milligrams sodium, 9 grams dietary fiber.

Thai Lime Chicken Noodle Salad

Makes 4 servings

For the sauce:

1/2 cup Thai fish sauce (nam pla)

3/4 cup fresh lime juice

1/4 cup fresh chopped cilantro

1/4 cup fresh chopped basil

1/4 cup fresh chopped mint

1/2 tablespoon peeled and minced fresh ginger

For the salad:

1 cooked rotisserie chicken

8 ounces rice noodles

About 1/2 pound fresh baby spinach leaves

1 pint cherry tomatoes

1. In a large mixing bowl, blend the fish sauce with the lime juice, cilantro, basil, mint, and ginger. Set aside.

2. Place the rice noodles in a medium bowl and cover them with hot tap water. Allow to soak until soft, about 30 minutes.

3. Remove the skin from the cooked rotisserie chicken, then pull the meat from the bones. Shred the chicken meat and place in the bowl containing the Thai Lime Sauce.

4. Drain the noodles well. Add them to the bowl containing the chicken and sauce. Add the spinach leaves and the tomatoes. Toss well and serve immediately in chilled bowls.

- Adapted from a recipe by chef Ming Tsai, author of Blue Ginger

Note: This recipe also works well with firm tofu standing in for chicken.

Per serving: 307 calories, 47 grams protein, 29 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 2 grams fat, 124 milligrams cholesterol, 2,817 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.

New Orleans-Style Muffuletta Sandwich: A Guideline

Makes 4-6 servings

For the olive salad:

About 1 cup pitted green olives, finely chopped

About 1 cup black olives, finely chopped

3 tablespoons capers

1/3 cup jarred diced roasted red peppers

1/4 cup finely diced celery, with leaves

3 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

2 teaspoons finely minced garlic

21/2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar

3 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

For the sandwich:

1 round peasant bread, about 7 inches in diameter, 5 to 6 inches high, halved crosswise, inside bread pulled out

5 to 6 ounces thinly sliced deli cold cuts of your choice, preferably salami, turkey, and/or ham

5 ounces thinly sliced provolone cheese or Italian slicing cheese of your choice

1. Make the olive salad a day ahead by combining all ingredients well, covering and refrigerating until needed.

2. To assemble the sandwich, spread half of the olive mixture on the bottom half of the bread. Top with your choice of deli meats. Add a layer of cheese. Top with the rest of the olive salad, including any juices.

3. Cover with the top of the bread and press it down. Wrap the sandwich tightly in plastic wrap. Place on a cookie sheet and top with another cookie sheet. Put a heavy can from your pantry on top as a weight.

4. Refrigerate 1 hour before unwrapping and cutting the sandwich into 4 to 6 wedges using a serrated knife. Serve immediately or rewrap each wedge to take to the beach.

Note: This is called a guideline because it is a very forgiving sandwich that allows you to go this way and that. Use fillings of your choice. Also, you may eliminate the step of making olive salad by buying a jarred version.

Per serving (based on 6): 428 calories, 20 grams protein, 41 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 21 grams fat, 32 milligrams cholesterol, 1,304 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.

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