“Comfort food” usually conjures images of steamy dishes like mac ’n’ cheese, mashed potatoes, beef stew, pizza, waffles, nachos or fried chicken — with a hot biscuit, if possible. But when the mercury soars, the last thing anyone wants is a hot dish, especially if they have to prepare it.
Enter summer comfort food.
No argument here that a chilled pie or a frozen margarita can work wonders, but there are plenty of options that taste amazing and soothe the soul without causing the guilt machine to kick in.
Soup’s On — And It’s Chilled
Summer is made for cold soups. A perennial favorite is gazpacho, usually prepared with tomatoes, cucumber, onion, garlic and a little bit of olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Served with some crunchy bread, it can be a meal unto itself.
But another wonderful thing about gazpacho is that there are endless variations. Try using heirloom tomatoes (Green Zebra will produce a lovely light-green soup). Or grill the veggies and add some jalapeño for a little more zest. Herbs like basil, cilantro or mint make the flavor more complex. And if you want to go out on a limb, leave out the tomatoes and substitute cauliflower and some almonds.
Another satisfying soup is pretty much anything made with avocado. Add a little broth, some dairy (or nondairy) product, onion, hot pepper, ginger, salt… and you’ve got one creamy, soul-soothing soup.
(MORE: Finger-Licking-Good Chicken Recipes)
Salad Days of Summer
Greens may be healthy (and a daily staple for some of us), but comfort food they’re not. So when you think summer salads, think outside the plastic clamshell. A dish you see variations of everywhere these days is the watermelon-based salad. Pair cold chunks of watermelon with tomatoes or mangoes, add a chiffonade of mint (or basil) and any of the following: a little lime juice or vinegar (wine or balsamic), some slivered almonds, honey, chives. Then top with feta or bocconcini (tiny balls of mozzarella). Want to get really comfortable? Splash in a little sparkling wine at the end.
A favorite summer delight is cold pasta salad with farm-fresh tomatoes and basil. Just cook up a big batch of your favorite kind of cut pasta (curly rotelli work well). Drain and chill. Chop up a few really ripe tomatoes: large slicing ones or cherry or grape size. Drizzle on good olive oil, a basil chiffonade, coarse salt and fresh-ground pepper. If you like cheese, top with Parmesan or Grana Padano. One important tip: Make a lot — this dish is even better the next day.
On the Side
When you want maximum gratification with minimum effort, think bruschetta. The most familiar version of this popular Italian starter is chopped tomato with onion, garlic, olive oil, salt and slivered basil on toasted baguette slices, but you could top the bread with anything your heart fancies. Eggplant or olive tapenade, sauteed mushrooms and goat cheese, beans with Pecorino and mint, roasted red peppers, or proscuitto or smoked trout.
Not Just Desserts
Of course, with berries in season and peaches coming on, you almost don’t need anything else to end a meal. Except perhaps that most all-American of warm-weather treats: ice cream.
It’s easy to grab a pint or half-gallon from your local grocery freezer, but if you're looking to reduce your intake of sugar, fat and calories, I have two foolproof suggestions — they do require a small appliance, though. The first uses a food processor. The classic Cuisinart Banana “Ice Cream” recipe calls for bananas, milk (dairy, coconut or almond) and a little honey, vanilla and salt. Process till smooth, then kick back and enjoy.
(MORE: Stop Being an Ice Cream Snob!)
This next meal-capper is my new favorite treat. I’ve shared it with all my dinner guests this summer and every single one has had the same reaction: How did you make this, and can I get that machine?! (For the record, I’m not in the habit of promoting specific products, but this one is exceptional. You’ll see.)
This scrumptious dessert is made by a small countertop machine called Yonanas. It’s like an all-fruit soft-serve ice cream maker; the basic unit costs less than $50. Ahead of time you’ll need to freeze fruit, especially bananas. (Peel them, but don’t slice.) About two hours before you’re ready for dessert, take the fruit out of the freezer and let it thaw a little. Turn on the machine and, following the directions, start with a banana, add any other fruit (or chocolate!) and then finish with a banana. If you think this concoction sounds good, wait till you try it.
So what are your favorite summer comfort foods? We’d love to know.