What March is to college hoops fans and September is to the fashion crowd, these next few months are to the food-obsessed, particularly to those here in The Mustard Seed House. We wait all year for summer, when the market is exploding with produce; when we can stand next to a hot grill, cold drink in hand, and feel that all is right with the world. I assume you feel this way, too. So what’s to follow is my hardly scientific, thoroughly opinionated rules for cooking in the tastiest of seasons. This may seem nonsensical since the most important rule should be to relax the rules. But I want to make sure we don’t miss a beet!
RULE NO. 2 IT’S IMPORTANT TO EMBRACE LAZINESS The taste of the summer market needs little intervention. Giants like corn, tomatoes, peaches, and watermelon do not need help. A few grill marks, a little drizzle…they are good just as they are, so I encourage you to do very little. And, don’t go creating watermelon baskets with perfectly balled pieces of melon, just chunk it and eat it! And if you can appreciate informality, just halve the fruit and set it on a table along with a knife and fork. I’ve attended a poolside event where one guest did exactly that and everyone rushed to it and took turns carving out a piece for themselves. I thought, now that’s summer!
RULE NO. 3 SPEAKING OF LAZY: DON’T EVEN BOTHER SHUCKING THAT CORN Get your ears wet and place them on a hot grill for 30ish minutes, let them cool slightly, then pull back the husk and remove the hairs. Use the husk as a handle and bite in.
RULE NO. 4 GO AHEAD, RUB IT IN There is almost no piece of meat that cannot be improved by a good dry rub. It’s quick to assemble and will pay you back in smokey dividends all summer long. Here’s my go-to:
2 teaspoons black peppercorns
2 teaspoons yellow mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
3 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon celery seeds
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 spice grinder (a peppermill works too)
1 airtight container
Stir peppercorns, mustard seeds, and cumin seeds in a small skillet over medium heat until toasted, about 2 minutes. Let cool. Put into a spice grinder (or peppermill) and pulse until finely ground. Add remaining ingredients and blend. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 months.
RULE NO. 5 WHEN ITCOMES TO MEAT, COOK MORE THAN YOU NEED Nobody ever regretted having extra steak, BBQ chicken, or lamb burgers left over from a grill out. But, this rule does not apply to fish: No one’s gonna touch a day-old piece of mackerel.
RULE NO. 7 NO ONE IS GOING TO IMPROVE THE TOMATO SANDWICH No one—not Jamie Oliver, not the Roca brother’s whose place was voted Best Restaurant in the World, maybe not even God. Put a few slices of that heirloom Mr. Stripey, or any other big, sweet, juicy tomato on your favorite toasted bread with tangy mayo. Add a sprinkle of sea salt, a couple grinds of pepper, and eat open-face.
*OK, OK—No one should complain if you slip in some crunchy bacon.
RULE NO. 8 NO DISH YOU MAKE BETWEEN JUNE AND SPETEMBER SHOULD NEED TO BE SERVED “PIPING HOT” Try Aunt Kookie’s crowd pleasing Red Cabbage Salad, or MiMi’s green beans with grainy mustard dressing. Get the leftover steak out of the fridge, slice it thinly and put atop peppery crackers with herb spread and cherry preserves. You don’t have leftover steak? Then you didn’t make enough! See RULE NO. 5.
RULE NO. 9 YOU’VE GOT THE ROSÉ ON ICE, RIGHT? I like a good aged Cabernet Sauvignon with red meat and I enjoy Gewurztraminer with grilled seafood or shellfish with a mayonnaise sauce. But in the summer, Rosé. It’s so versatile, so refreshing, and so pretty in a short water glass. Three highly drinkable values: San Lorenzo Sirio Cerasuolo Montepulciano d’Abruzzo from the Adriatic coast ($7); Domaine de Fenouillet Côtes du Ventoux Rosé ($13) from the southern Rhône Valley; Castello di Ama Rosato ($15) from Tuscany.
RULE NO. 10 TRY NEW FLAVOR COMBINATIONS Chiles + Lime, Tomatoes + Basil, they’re expected. How about Tomatoes + Strawberries, Mushrooms + Apricots, Eggs + Beets, Eggs + Coconut, Oysters + Watermelon, Shrimp + Walnuts, Salmon + Licorice, Scallops + Vanilla, Chocolate + Onions, Blackberries + Rose, Rhubarb + Anise. It’s chemistry, and these pairings work.
RULE NO. 11 SIMPLE SYRUP IS LIQUID GOLD Simple syrup can be infused with rosemary, thyme, ginger, basil, lavender, or mint, and added to Gin and Tonics, iced tea, lemonade, sorbet and granita bases. It’s indispensable to your summer culinary life.
In a saucepan, stir together sugar and water over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Let cool, then strain, cover, and chill.
To 2.0 it, bring to a simmer with rosemary or thyme sprigs, grated peeled fresh ginger, basil leaves, lavender, or mint and let steep for 30 minutes or up to 1 hour. Strain before pouring into a jar.
Keeps for 2 weeks.
RULE NO. 12 KEEP THE HEAT IN CHECK; DO NOT TURN ON THE OVEN Unless it’s to make Rosemary-Strawberry Shortcake Pizza.
1 quart strawberries, halved or quartered (4 cups)
1/4 cup honey
3+ cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary or thyme (optional)
4 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 3/4 cups whipping cream
1 egg white, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons organic cane sugar sweetened whipped cream or vanilla ice cream
1 large bowl
1 food processor
1 large baking sheet
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. In a large bowl combine strawberries and honey. Let stand, stirring occasionally, while preparing shortcake.
For shortcake, in a food processor combine flour, the 1/4 cup sugar, the rosemary, baking powder, and salt; pulse to mix. (Or whisk together in large bowl.) Add butter to flour mixture; pulse several times. (Or cut in butter with pastry blender or two knives.) While pulsing, add cream, pulsing until dough begins to come together. (Or make a well in center of flour mixture. Pour cream into well. Mix with fork just until dough is evenly moistened.) If the dough seems too wet, add flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, until it seems right. You don’t want the dough to stick too much to your fingers. A little bit is ok.
Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface. Knead quickly. Roll dough to 9×13-inch rectangle (1/2-inch thickness). Transfer dough to a large baking sheet lined with parchment paper. With a sharp knife, score dough (cutting not quite through) in 1-1/2-inch squares. Brush dough with egg white; sprinkle with the 2 tablespoons sugar. Bake 22 to 26 minutes or until golden.
Transfer shortcake and parchment to a wooden board or platter. Spoon strawberries onto shortcake. Drizzle with juices. Serve in tumblers or bowls. Top with whipped cream or ice cream.
Grill Option On a charcoal grill large enough to accommodate a large skillet placed in the center of the grill rack, arrange medium-hot coals around perimeter of grill (for indirect griliing). Prepare shortcake as directed. After kneading, pat dough into a generously buttered 12-inch cast-iron skillet. Test for medium heat above center of grill. Place skillet in center of grill (not over coals). Cover and grill for 25 to 30 minutes or until set in center. Remove from grill; let stand for 10 minutes. Cut and serve.
RULE NO. 13 ADDITIONAL DON’TS Crudités and dip; cold fusilli salad; plain grilled chicken breasts; skewers threaded with different ingredients requiring different cooking times. How about we all agree to leave these weekend BBQ standards in the last century. Oh, and please no more cheese platters going soft in the sun. Those are always a disaster. Always.
RULE NO. 14 ONE OF THE BEST THINGS YOU’LL COOK THIS SUMMER REQUIRES NO COOKING AT ALL It’s called no-cook tomato sauce, and here’s how you make it: Cut up a bunch of tomatoes, about 2 cups worth, into a large bowl. Add minced garlic cloves, 2 or more, 1/2 cup of extra-virgin olive oil, 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar, and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Mix and let sit at room temperature to allow the flavors to develop (at least 20 minutes) and when you’re ready to eat, toss it with your favorite pasta. I like Ziti with fresh mozzarella and basil, I call it Caprese Pasta, or Angel Hair noodles and Parm for an little Italian café meal, right at home.
RULE NO.15 WHATEVER YOU COOK, MAKE IT FROM YOUR HEART, FOR THE ONES YOU LOVE. IT WILL FEED YOUR SOUL. Love is to the heart what the summer is to the farmer’s year. It brings to harvest all the loveliest flowers of the soul. -Billy Grahm