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Out of the Kitchen

From tabouleh to backyard bouillabaisse, cool food for summer

A good kitchen should be sufficiently remote from the principal apartments of the house, that the members, visitors, or guests of the family, may not perceive the odour incident to cooking, or hear the noise of culinary operations.”

Mrs. Isabella Beeton, Book of Household Management (1861)

A simple backyard bouillibaisse - recipe below. (photo by Joe George)

I work as a professional cook. This is virtually all I have ever done. Those who have spent any time in a kitchen, professionally or not, know that the dog days of summer can be unforgiving in the humid Northeast.

I know no one who enjoys cooking in a hot kitchen. Personally, I anticipate the summer months with a sort of trepidation. If it’s hot and sticky outside, it is even hotter and stickier in the kitchen. The heat in a kitchen on a hot summer’s day is all-encompassing and inescapable; it fills every pore of your body. Trying to escape the heat is like trying not to get wet when submerged in water.

There are plenty “hot kitchen stories” I could tell, such as the time a prep cook passed out on the steamy dish machine, or the chef who would not allow lights on in the kitchen during August because it created extra heat. But one of my favorites is when I witnessed the heat from the other side of the kitchen door.

I was on holiday with my sisters in New York City. It was during a heat wave and the temperature was in triple digits. Like most tourists, we plotted our days by determining which air-conditioned café, store, or museum we would go to next. I, of course, couldn’t help but think of the cooks that were working through it.

One particularly sweltering afternoon (the high, I clearly remember was 106F), we had lunch in a café in Greenwich Village. Because the dining room was packed, the hostess sat us very close to the kitchen. So close, in fact, that when the door was kicked open by a plate-burdened server, it would hit my sister’s chair. Most would consider this a terrible table, but I enjoyed the location because each time the door opened it offered me full view into someone else’s kitchen.

The view was one that I knew well: a sweltering kitchen amid the chaos of one of the busiest times of day. As I sat eating my croque monsieur and drinking icy chardonnay with beads of condensation on the glass, I caught glimpses of cooks drenched with sweat. The chef stood in the middle and had a towel draped limply over his shoulders. The temperature, I thought, had to be 120 degrees. He put plate after plate of food in the serving window and barked orders to anyone within earshot. I could see his face red and glistening, and at one point our eyes met and he gave me a look that said, “What the hell are you looking at?” I relished the cool of the air-conditioned room, knowing I would be in a similar position soon enough. I sipped the chilled wine slowly.

There are many ways for the home cook to avoid the heat of the stove on a hot day. The most logical thing is not to use your kitchen at all, and cook outside. Cooking outside has its merits and is not limited to grilled foods; everything from roasted chicken to pasta, and even bread, can be made outdoors. Our early settlers knew this; it was commonplace for New Englanders and Quebecoise to have two kitchens: one indoors and the other outside, often sharing the same chimney.

I have put this concept to the test on more than one occasion. On a fanatical impulse one summer I built an outdoor oven of bricks, mortar, and topsoil. Another time my son and I cooked a small pot of bouillabaisse in our backyard. We simply dug a shallow pit, started a fire, and set the pot on to boil. It was so easy to do and was some of the best fish stew that I’ve ever had. Bouillabaisse, along with its cousins, gumbo, chowder, and zuppa di pesce, were undoubtedly all cooked outside in the early days. So too was the classic pot au feu—loosely translated, a pot on the fire.

If cooking outside is not a viable option, then the best way to keep the kitchen cool is to keep things simple. And keeping it simple does not necessarily mean boring or plain; there are plenty of interesting foods that can be prepared with little or no cooking, and many recipes can be prepared ahead of time, before the heat of the day sets in.

Personally, when I think of summer cooking, I am drawn to the cuisines that are indigenous to warmer climates, particularly those that surround the sun-drenched Mediterranean. The food is light and often served chilled or at room temperature, and meals healthfully incorporate a substantial amount of vegetables, fruits, and grains. This is best summed up, I think, in the opening paragraph of the aptly titled Summer Cooking, written by the inspirational food writer Elizabeth David in 1955. “By summer cookery I do not necessarily mean cold food; although cold dishes are always agreeable in summer. At most meals, however hot the weather, one hot dish is welcome, but it should be a light one, such as a very simply cooked sole, an omelette, a soup of the young vegetables which are in season—something fresh which provides at the same time a change, a new outlook.”

As I type these words it is that vague, unpredictable yet inevitable lull that occurs between serving the appetizers and the soup course of a banquet. It’s a midsummer Saturday night and humid as hell. There’s a 10-gallon stockpot simmering a couple feet behind me, along with various other pots and pans. I feel beads of sweat running down my back. I look forward to a cold glass of wine at the end of the shift, but mostly I pine for my makeshift backyard kitchen.

Cold Poached Salmon with Fennel, Carrots, & Orange-Cumin Vinaigrette

Yield: 4 servings

4 cups water
1 cup white wine
The juice of one lemon
1 bay leaf
5 whole peppercorns
2 peeled garlic cloves
4 salmon filets, 6 ounces each
1 small fennel bulb
4 medium carrots, peeled
1 small onion, peeled
8 tablespoons virgin olive oil
6 tablespoons orange juice
4 tablespoons wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

Combine the water, wine, lemon juice, bay leaf, peppercorns, and garlic in a shallow pan. Bring to a boil, then lower it to a very slow simmer. Add the salmon and cook for about 10 minutes. Carefully remove the cooked salmon to a plate and refrigerate it. (This can be prepared a day ahead.) Slice the fennel, carrots, and onion paper-thin. Combine the vegetables in a bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the olive oil, orange juice, vinegar, and salt; set aside. In a small, dry skillet, combine the cumin seeds and hot pepper, and toast the spices over medium-high heat until they begin to change color and perfume the air (stir and toss the spices continually to avoid scorching). Pour the toasted spices directly from the skillet into the vinaigrette. Whisk together the vinaigrette and pour it over the sliced vegetables. (This can be prepared a day ahead.) To serve, arrange the salmon filets on plates, top with the vegetable salad.

Clams & Chorizo Cooked with Beer, Spices, & Herbs

Yield: 4 servings

4 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound chorizo sausage, diced
1 small onion, diced
1 small bell pepper, diced
1 small carrot, diced
2 jalapeño peppers, minced
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 cups beer
1 cup chicken broth
3 cups diced tomatoes
36 littleneck clams
1/2 bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1/2 bunch cilantro, chopped

Heat the oil in a large skillet and brown the sausage. Remove the sausage and set aside; drain a portion of the fat that may have accumulated. In the same pan, add the onion, bell pepper, carrot, and jalapeño; sauté for 2 minutes. Add the garlic, chili powder, cumin, salt, and black pepper; sauté for 1 minute. Add the beer, chicken broth, and tomatoes; bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer. Add the sausage and clams to the simmering broth, cover and cook for about 7 minutes, or until the clams are opened and fully cooked. Remove from the heat and sprinkle with the parsley and cilantro.


Yield: 4 servings

3/4 cup bulgur wheat
2 cups warm water
2 cups chopped parsley
3/4 cup chopped mint
1/2 cup sliced green onions
1/4 cup olive oil
3 tablespoon lemon juice
2 diced tomatoes
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper

Soak the bulgur in the warm water for 1/2 hour, then drain it and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Combine the bulgur with the remaining ingredients and refrigerate for before serving.

Easy Backyard Bouillabaisse

In a medium pot combine a cup or two of white wine, an equal quantity of broth, a couple diced tomatoes, a diced onion, a few fennel seeds, saffron threads, some salt and pepper, a diced green pepper, onion, garlic clove, a few small potatoes, and a couple slices of smoked sausage. Place the pot on hot coals and bring to a boil. Simmer for 10 minutes. Add a half-dozen clams and a sliced orange; simmer until the clams open. Add diced fish (we used tilapia) and fresh basil; simmer for just a few minutes, until the fish is cooked.

Fattoush Salad

Yield: 4 servings

2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup chopped mint
1/2 cup lemon juice
3/4 cup olive oil
1 loaf pita
6 leaves romaine lettuce, torn into 1 inch pieces
1 diced cucumber
2 diced tomatoes
1/2 cup sliced green onions
1/2 cup diced bell pepper
1/2 cup chickpeas

In a small bowl, combine the garlic, salt, pepper, mint, lemon juice, and olive oil. Toast the bread in a 350 oven for 5 minutes, or until crispy. Break the bread into 1-inch pieces. Combine the bread, lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes, green onions, bell pepper, and chickpeas. Drizzle the dressing over the salad and toss thoroughly.

Hummus Bil Tahina

Yield: 3 1/2 cups

3 cups chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 cup tahini
1/2 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup cold water
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
lettuce leaves
3 tablespoon virgin olive oil
2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 cup chopped parsley

Purée the chickpeas and garlic in a food processor, add the tahini, lemon juice, water, salt, and cayenne pepper; purée another minute or two until smooth. To serve, scoop the hummus onto a plate lined with lettuce leaves. Make an indentation in the center and drizzle the olive oil. Sprinkle with paprika and parsley.

Tomato, Cucumber, & Feta Salad

Yield: 4 servings

1/3 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon minced mint leaves
3 medium tomatoes
1 medium cucumber
4 ounces feta cheese

In a small bowl combine the olive oil, lemon, vinegar, garlic, salt, pepper, and mint; whisk together and set aside. Slice the tomatoes and place them in the vinaigrette. Peel and slice the cucumbers and place them also in the vinaigrette. Arrange the tomatoes and cucumbers on chilled plates. Crumble the cheese onto the salads. Drizzle remaining vinaigrette onto the salads. Serve with grilled pita or other flatbread.

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