Sunday, February 6, 2011

Summer, Oh Summer... Where Art Thou?

Seasons and weather dictate the availability of produce in the market and obviously this affects the way we cook, the recipes we turn to and the methods of cooking we employ.

It seems like lately, the city can’t make up her mind about what season she wants to be. Last weekend stood a true blue testament to February in Victoria – 40 degree day – perfect beach weather. By the time mid-week approached, unceremonious gales were blowing hard, rustling up the trees, pulling down the leaves and whistling in the wind. By Friday a swell had developed with thunderstorms and rain plaguing the city relentlessly. Then the weekend rolled in and the newspapers were splashed with headlines declaring flash-flooding across the city!

With the unpredictable state of Melbourne’s summer at the moment it makes judging what’s to be served for dinner, a rather tough ask! I have been juggling dishes in the past weeks, serving up a hearty Beef Goulash with Potato Mash one day, then a light Prawn and Bacon Fettuccine with Lemon and Feta the next, going from Winter to Summer, and back and forth – all in the span of one week!

Winter months see us toiling away, utilising the oven a whole lot – allowing the heat to permeate the kitchen and warm up the house while roasts crisp up, stews and casseroles bubble, and rich, creamy sauces simmer.

Contrastingly, light, tide-me-over meals of summer are designed simply to satisfy and stave away hunger and do-away with endless hours spent in a hot, sticky kitchen! It is usually the time of year people are keen to go-green – embrace vegetarianism, pack away the roasting pans and the Dutch-ovens, replacing them with brand new gas bottles for the barbecue and serve up an array of foods that can be served cold and prepared with minimalistic use of the stove top and oven.

Everyone eagerly awaits the arrival of summer, especially after the long, cold months of dreary winter – so when it heats up most folks transport their ingredients and dinnerware outdoors to bask the sun and enjoy the warmth.

While Melbourne’s summer this year has far-from-lived up to its expectations, here are some handy-hints to help you along your way, should summer come-a-calling!

Dips, Cheese, Cold Cuts, Deli Meats, Crackers, Flat Bread and Anti-Pasto usually feature heavily as snacky-foods that can instantaneously be turned into wraps, sandwiches or baguettes and easily toasted or served fresh.

Salads and stir-fry’s are another common feature of summer menus as the incorporate the fresh green leafy vegetables that have sprung into season. Choose from a variety of lettuces, aromatic herbs, crunchy carrots, juicy cucumbers, ripe tomatoes, pearly ears of corn and buttery avocadoes.

All you need then is a zesty dressing to bring it all together and whammo, you have a stunning, simple-to-make summer meal. As for dressings, I avoid the bottled stuff available at supermarkets, as they usually negate the positive points of eating salad since they tend to be full of sugar, preservatives and chemicals that do your body absolutely no good. Oh, and of course they don’t live up to their advertised expectations either!

Homemade dressings are as simple as mixing a few of your favourite flavours together and experimenting. Favourite concoctions I like to whip up include Red-Wine Vinaigrette Dressing (Red Wine Vinegar, Olive Oil, Dried Italian Herbs, Salt and Pepper), Creamy Balsamic Dressing (Olive Oil, Balsamic Dressing and Mayonnaise) and Honey-Mustard Dressing (Honey, Seeded Mustard, Olive Oil, White Vinegar and Dried Italian Herbs).

The good thing about these dressings are apart from the Creamy Balsamic, is that all the others can be made in large batches and stored in squeeze-bottles to be used over a period of time since the ingredients are shelf-stable and do not require any refrigeration.

Please note, because the Creamy Balsamic contains mayonnaise and therefore requires can be stored for up to a week, refrigerated.

All this talk of summer and no mention of a barbecue! Seems ludicrous eh? There is no way that living Down Under one can ever possibly forget the all integral barbecue that is essential to any Aussie summer experience!

The Australians are masters of the grill. You name it and they will find a way of chucking it on the barbecue, and infusing the characteristic smoky, charcoal flavour. It doesn’t take much to get you hooked!

In my three years in Australia I have seen everything from eggs being cooked on the Barbie to stuffed eggplants! Possibly the greatest thing about barbecuing is that it requires very little prep-work and barely any cleaning up after. All you need to have a few basic ingredients handy. It is best to keep your pantry stocked for summer with the following, since most of these will last you well through summer and beyond. Ketchup (or Tomato Sauce), BBQ Sauce, Honey, Mustard of your choice, Mixed Dried Herbs, Paprika, Packaged Lemon Juice, Sea Salt and Cracked Pepper.

With these few ingredients, you can create magical marinades that will have you jumping up and down with excitement, along with family and friends. Marinades are easy to make, simply use ingredients keeping in mind their individual flavour profiles. Take French mustard – it tends to typically have a sharp, poignant edge with a creamy texture, so it is best balanced by Honey – a rich, sweet, glossy ingredient that will contrast and thus marry well. To finish the marinade and give it complexity, a herb like Rosemary, that is hardy and buxom (able to stand up to the heady flavours of Mustard and Honey) is perfect.

Summer brings us bountiful, succulent fruits and these are obviously delicious eaten as-is, but also lend themselves to a variety of dishes. Fruit in summer is best used to spice up salads as well as marinades for meats that go straight onto the Barbie without too much fussing.

A couple of winning salads use fruit. Why not try sliced/ chopped apples as you would in a Waldorf Salad, or segmented orange with sliced fennel and rocket doused in olive oil and red-wine vinegar.

Another of my favourite summer salads incorporates watermelon which is just brilliant – cooling you down almost immediately. Almost 90 per cent of a watermelon is comprised of – you guessed it – water! So it is immediately refreshing. Pair cubes of watermelon with chiffonade of mint, a hint of lemon juice and crumbled feta and you are in for a real treat – it’s great on its own as well as with steak.

Stone fruit that is amply available around summertime like Nectarines, Peaches, Plums and Apricots are simply gorgeous when used in salsas, pesto, chimmi-churri and even in chunky salad dressing since it adds a wonderful natural sweetness and a kiss of summer to these accompaniments that are best served with grilled meats.

When cooking/ marinating meat for the barbecue stone fruit can be incorporate too, great for adding moisture and flavour to the meat. Try adding chunks of stone fruit in between skewers or kebabs as a zesty alternative to capsicum/ onion or why not stuff a loin of pork with de-seeded stone fruit along with herbs for a sensational roast.

No comments: