Summer might call to mind lazy afternoons by the swimming hole, the creaky slam of a screen door, and the distant sound of children running through sprinklers, but for those of us involved in the business of food, there’s a distinct sense of urgency associated with tomatoes, peaches, berries, peppers, squash, cucumbers and sweet corn. Summer produce seems to ripen all at once, and comes on in massive quantities for an all-too-brief time. At the exact time when you want to be drowsily trailing the tips of your fingers in a cool stream, eyes half closed while someone else paddles the boat, someone instead comes in from the garden with a tub full of gorgeous heirloom tomatoes or sweet peppers that demand to be eaten, cooked, canned, or otherwise dealt with . . . right now. This is not food that is willing to wait, nor will it really be around long enough to allow being taken for granted or forgotten til later. The floral spiciness of a fresh sweet pepper, the crisp juicy crunch of a ripe pear, or the wine-dark tartness of a juicy, sun-warmed tomato make us forgiving of such demands, even in the hottest part of the day.
What do we do with all the riches the garden bestows in summer? I find myself inordinately pleased with myself when I remember a recipe that uses it all, and this was the game I played in the kitchen on Sunday night—use it all! Jars of minestrone, gazpacho, Southern chow-chow relish, peach chutney, and caramelized onions crowd the refrigerator shelves, and, thankfully, we hardly have to lift a finger all week. I love gazpacho for breakfast in the summer—energizing and refreshing, spooned from a giant glass jar while standing alone in the quiet kitchen, shivery cool, like air conditioning for my insides after the run that was too hot even before 10:00. Later in the day, a dinner like this one, that doesn’t require turning on the stove or distract from marathon cooking and preserving sessions is a true blessing.
The true payoff for such demands is that this is food that requires very little. Is there much that I can do to a tomato to make it better? To a peach? This is the time of year when we think of ourselves less as cooks or kitchen artistes than as caretakers, facilitators of the perfection of what nature has created with sun and soil and water and human sweat. It is the time we are asked most urgently to be home, to connect, to preserve what we have been given, to say yes to color and flavor and sunshine and canning jars.
Warm Chicken Salad with Peppers, Pears & Toasted Pinenuts
Leftover roast chicken, wrapped in foil and re-warmed at 350 (save juices and drippings)
1 bunch of arugula, washed and torn
2 pears, sliced paper thin
4-6 small sweet peppers, slivered
1/4 c. pine nuts, toasted
2 Tbs. minced rosemary
2 shallots, sliced thin
juice of 1/2 lemon
2 Tbs. sherry vinegar
1 Tbs. whole grain mustard
1/2 c. olive oil
Combine chicken, arugula, peppers, pears and pine nuts in a large bowl. Place rosemary, lemon juice, sherry vinegar & mustard in a small bowl and whisk to combine. Continue whisking while slowly drizzling in olive oil until emulsified. Whisk in roast chicken juices/drippings. Add dressing to salad and toss until well combined. Serve at once.