I love cooking in the summer — the time each year when it's darned near impossible to wreck a meal. Plus, expectations are low when temperatures are high. So whatever maneuvers I perform are met with volumes of awe and appreciation, when the truth is, summer meals practically cook themselves. For example:
It began with a friend dropping by just as I was headed into the kitchen. So first things first: a freezer-chilled Tanqueray splashed on the rocks in two chilled glasses, followed by ice-cold tonic and a twist of lime. Now we're cooking.
The fridge gave up a lovely strip of Carlton Farm pork tenderloin that had "roast me!" written all over it. I laid it on a cutting board and sliced a deep pocket into the meat from stem to stern. Then I chopped up a handful of garlic cloves and some fresh basil.
After stuffing this mixture into the tenderloin, I headed back to the fridge for some feta cheese, which got crumbled and shoved into the tenderloin, right on top of the basil and garlic. To keep the stuffing where it belonged, I took some string and wrapped it around the meat in several places before placing it in a foil pan, along with a few glugs of a pertinent pinot blanc, a drizzling of olive oil, some salt and coarsely ground black pepper. I placed it on the Weber, offset from the smoking-hot coals.
Because dinner was going to be awhile, I hunted around for some edible diversion to share with our visitor and came up with a fragrant hunk of Roaring Twenties blue and a handful of cherry tomatoes. I tore into an Alpine baguette, smeared the crusty surface with some of the cheese and took a healthy chomp, with a tomato chaser.
After a swing through the Wednesday farmers market on the riverfront in downtown Corvallis, I dropped by Harry's Fresh Fish and settled on two chunks of fresh albacore. Once home, I fashioned a shallow roasting pan out of heavy-duty foil. While the grill was heating up, I finely chopped half a Walla Walla Sweet onion, half a rib of celery, about six plump mushrooms, a backyard tomato and a fresh serrano chili.
I tossed all of those ingredients with some fresh corn kernels I'd just sliced off the cobs, a bit of olive oil, a healthy pinch of salt and an aggressive cranking of black peppercorns.
I laid the albacore pieces in the center of the foil pan, rubbed them down with some olive oil, salted and peppered them, then arranged my little fresh-salsa mixture all around the fish, letting a little of it hang out on top to flavor the tuna from all angles. After about 30 minutes of indirect heat in the Weber, dinner was done.
Preparations began midmorning when I poached a chicken in half a pot of water with some coarsely chopped cloves of garlic, a couple of sprigs of fresh rosemary and some salt and pepper. Around dinnertime, and long after the poached chicken had cooled its heels in the fridge, I pulled enough white and dark meat from the bird to feed two people and cut it into bite-sized chunks. Then I seasoned the chicken lightly with a little salt and pepper, added a finely minced green onion and snipped about 1 teaspoon of fresh dill into it, along with enough sour cream and mayonnaise to barely hold the mixture together. I didn't want to drown out the pure flavor of the chicken or dill.
In another bowl, I tossed together some baby lettuces with a few shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano and a simple vinaigrette that I'd flavored with some finely minced fresh oregano, divided the salad between two plates, then cozied a few slices of backyard tomato up against the greens, along with a healthy spoonful of the chicken salad.
First, I drizzled a bit of olive oil in a skillet, added a handful of finely minced mushrooms and half a Walla Walla Sweet onion and sauteed the combo until the mushrooms began to brown. Then I scraped the mixture to the side of the pan, drizzled in just a bit more oil and added two thin slices of chicken breast (the equivalent of 1 whole chicken breast, butterflied, if you will, to produce two very skinny servings), which I continued to cook until they were very golden on both sides.
While that was happening, I carved off two healthy slices of Big River Pugliese bread, scraped just a whisper of butter on the top of each and a sprinkling of Parmesan, then popped them in the toaster oven. I placed each of the chicken breasts on a dinner plate and divided the mushroom mixture between the servings.
Then I took the skillet back over to the burner and deglazed the pan with a healthy glug of the syrah I was drinking. Over medium-high heat, I scraped up all the wonderful cooked-on pan juices so they could dissolve into the wine, then added another glug of wine since the first had almost evaporated. Next, I drizzled in just a splash of balsamic vinegar. Then, after that got all hot and bubbly, I blended in about a tablespoon of butter, just to hold the sauce together and give it backbone. This was a pretty thick and syrupy sauce, and I simply drizzled it around each chicken breast, making tasty puddles of flavor for dipping our morsels of meat and Big River toast.
Well, dear diary, you get the idea. Our summer harvest encourages a healthful and moderate style of cooking. Maybe it's because the palate is always being tantalized with fresh and exciting treats, which seem to suppress the tendency to overeat. I don't get all worked up over what's healthy and what's not — it all seems to average out to "healthy" when the week's behind us, meaning that sometimes wonderful things like linguica, bacon and salami are worked into a given meal. In the bigger picture, it's simply about using what nature is providing without overdoing the preparations.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at email@example.com or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.