During the summer when it’s hot and I’m lazy, I don’t do a lot of involved, complicated cooking. Well, not as often as in the cooler months. I’m still prone to wacky things, like making French onion soup in July when the craving hits because what are you going to do? But most of the time I just sort of throw things together with stuff from my garden or farmers market purchases. Simple, fresh ingredients that taste best served really cold lead the list.
Since my garden is exploding with tomatoes, they end up in many dishes as a simple pasta sauce or salad with a bit of basil, vinegar and a splash of olive oil. I might eat nothing but two or three ears of corn for dinner one night, cooked simply in the microwave with nothing but butter, salt and pepper. Gazpacho made by throwing a bunch of things in a blender and hitting the on switch. If peaches are ripe and juicy, I’ll toss them with some arugula and fresh mozzarella. When melons are in season and you can smell them a mile away, I’ll make a favorite salad of melon, feta and prosciutto.
The combination of sweet melon and salty feta cheese is hard to beat. A favorite restaurant of mine used to serve the most delicious salad of watermelon, feta and salty kalamata olives and I eagerly awaited its appearance each summer. Then one year, it didn’t show. I spoke with the chef, a friend of mine, and asked where that delightful combination was. Melons were at their peak, why no salad? He looked at me wryly and said “when it’s on every menu on town, why would I have it on mine too?” Hard to argue as his salad was indeed on every menu in town and many of the chefs were his friends but his was by far the best of the lot. I had a feeling I’d never see it again. I was right. The downside of success.
So I started making it at home. Watermelon, arugula, feta, kalamata olives … simple and delicious. Sometimes I used cantaloupe, especially if it was during those two weeks in August when the French Charentais melons show up at the farmers markets (note: in Chicago that time is NOW.) If I had prosciutto, I added it. Once in a while I skipped the arugula entirely. Fresh mint was nice if I had remembered to bring some home from the garden.
While visiting a friend in Paris recently, we wandered over to Le Marché des Enfants Rouges a wonderful little covered market tucked between buildings in the Marais. They keep a strange schedule but there are generally food vendors during the day, butchers and cheesemongers and vegetable sellers, but also prepared food stands. A wonderful crepe maker, stunning Middle Eastern food, lovely burgers and an adorable little wine bar. We took a few seats at the wine bar counter one night, ordered some cold rosé and perused the menu. Melon, feta & jambon salad. It was on.
Their version was simple, perfect. Thinly sliced cucumbers, perfectly ripe sweet cantaloupe, feta, fresh mint and a drizzle of olive oil. Also on the menu, and shortly in our bellies, was another simple perfect salad – a mix of multicolored heirloom tomatoes and creamy burrata with fresh pesto. On that hot sweltering evening they were exactly what we wanted.
Now that tomatoes and melons are at their seasonal peak, in Chicago anyway, I’ve made these several times in the last few weeks. I’ve listed a recipe of sorts for the melon salad but it’s more of an assembly than a recipe. The tomato salad is even easier. Take a ball of burrata, that wonderfully creamy mozzarella with bits of cream and fresh curds tucked inside, and cut it into quarters without cutting all the way through. Place on a plate, surround by tomato slices and drizzle with pesto. Since there’s not much to it, the tomatoes must be good and flavorful. A colorful mix is pretty but flavor is more important. Use the most flavorful you can find.
These simple combinations are the perfect lunch or dinner on a hot summer day. But an even better idea is one I recommend time and again: put the beers and rosé on ice, invite people over, and put out large platters of these dishes for everyone to dig into at their leisure. Hell, I’d go to that party in a heartbeat.
STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: SWEET SUMMERTIME BLISS. This reinforces the most important and basic of culinary principles: get your hands on some good ingredients, at the height of their season and flavor, and do as little as possible. When things are high quality and delicious, don’t torture them into something they’re not. Highlight those flavors and call it a day.
Six years ago: Buttermilk Pancakes
Five years ago: Ginger Peach Hand Pies
Four years ago: Vinegary Cole Slaw
Three years ago: Bastille Day Lunch – Figgy BBQ Sauce
Two years ago: Apricot Pistachio Frangipane Tart
Last year: Modern Three Bean Salad
MELON, FETA & PROSCIUTTO SALAD
2 small Persian cucumbers, thinly sliced
½ of a small sweet flavorful cantaloupe, preferably a French Charentais if you can find it
¼ pound sheep’s milk feta, sliced into thin squares or cubed
4 thin slices prosciutto
¼ cup kalamata olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
good, fruity olive oil
freshly ground black pepper
- Seed and peel the cantaloupe and cut into quarters. Cut each quarter into 8 thin slices
- Begin assembling the salad by shingling the cucumbers on the plate.
- Fan the sliced melon on top of the cucumbers
- Tuck the feta between the melon slices
- Tear or cut each prosciutto slice into 4-5 pieces and scatter around the plate, in small bunches
- Sprinkle the olives on top, about 1 Tablespoon per plate
- Drizzle with olive oil and top with a pinch each a pinch of pepper.
- Serve immediately.