Summertime often means unexpected guests and impromptu get togethers. And at our place it rarely happens on the days the fridge is full of food! No worries. Every good cook is part Iron Chef after all. And isn't half the fun testing our creative abilities under pressure? Here are a few quick and easy ideas that help me cope with unexpected company.
1. Skewers. They're great for all things sweet or savoury and can help build a village if you have them on hand. Skewers have stopped me from nagging kids to eat all your fruit, helped me calm them down when they've gone wild with nothing to do, (let's make a few snacks) and whispered new ideas in my ear when my brain was numb. Every summer kitchen needs them and kids who are old enough to handle a skewer safely can help prepare a platter or two.
Use whatever fruit you have on hand to make fruit kabobs. Some fruits will need a little lemon juice to keep them from browning. Strawberries and grapes work well together as does watermelon with mango.
If you're short on fruit or prefer to go savoury, try loading skewers with coloured tortellini and whatever veggies you have on hand. Just mix the freshly cooked pasta in a bowl with salt, minced garlic and basil. Marinate for a few hours if you have time. If you don't, they'll still taste great. I've used cherry tomatoes and cheese here but they work well with olives and marinated artichoke hearts, too.
2. Salads. They're simple and always welcome. Fresh greens topped with sliced tomato, boiled eggs or leftover chicken just needs a drizzle of olive oil and a splash of your favorite vinegar. Garnish with olives, capers, shredded carrot...whatever you've got going on in your pantry or fridge. To quote singing chef Pasquale Carpino: "In music there is an infinity-- an endless number of combinations of notes and harmonies which will produce original and lovely melodies. So it is with cooking. The chef is like a composer, creating new recipes and adapting old ones to express the individuality that is found in each of us."
3. Grilled vegetables. Keep a stash of them ready to go. I grill a few zucchini and two or three eggplants almost every week this time of year. Brush slices with a little olive oil, minced garlic and freshly ground pepper. Refrigerate when cool. Mix with peperoncino if you like, and use for sandwiches, dinners or quick snacks between meals.
Zucchini shrink as they cook and when they do, I squeeze them closer together adding more slices to the grill until it's fully loaded. Sprinkle with salt only after they're cooked to keep them from drying out.
The only thing better than a grilled zucchini sandwich is a grilled eggplant sandwich. They're both great with hot pickled peppers, roasted red peppers, fresh tomato, goat cheese or ricotta salata. Add fresh arugula or a couple of forkfuls of cooked rapini and your taste buds will journey back to nonno's garden of 40 years ago.
Top your grilled eggplant with diced tomato, red onion and parsley. Drizzle more olive oil on top.
4. Dress up your potatoes. Gnocchi season has shut down in my kitchen, but potatoes are my lifesavers any time of year. They are soooo versatile. Best served hot from the grill, they can't really be prepared in advance, but this delicious spice mixture (see recipe below) can easily be prepared ahead of time. Created by my grilling-obsessed husband, this mix will yield potatoes so delicious, they'll be dancing the Tarantella in your mouth.
Mr. BBQ's Homemade Spice Mix
In a medium-sized bowl, add 2 tablespoons each of: basil, thyme, chili, cumin, Cajun paprika, and regular paprika. Add 1 teaspoon of black pepper. Mix thoroughly. Transfer to a glass jar and close tightly. Store in pantry away from heat.
We used New Ontario potatoes-- a very dry variety and probably perfect for making gnocchi. In a medium sized bowl, mix sliced potatoes, 2 cloves of garlic, olive oil and a dusting of spice. Transfer to a foil pie plate and cover with foil as well. Transfer to the grill and cook for 25 to 30 minutes at 400 degrees. Ten minutes before the potatoes are done, remove foil cover, spray a little more olive oil on top and add another light dusting of your spice mix. If you prefer to use whole potatoes, just wash, dry, (leave skins on) and rub the mixture onto each one before wrapping individually in foil. Cook on a 400-degree grill for 40 to 45 minutes. Delizioso.
5. The only beverages I stack up on in the cantina are water and wine. You can't go wrong with either one. If you have limes and lemons to dress up the water, it's always nice. If you know about company ahead of time, fill a decanter with peaches, add red wine and refrigerate. A three-day soak gives the wine a fruity flavor and brings me back to the summer days when I would stare at the beautiful colors in my parents' glasses...and couldn't wait for dinner to be done so I could go back outside to play with my friends. I wish you molti felici backyard gatherings this summer! Thanks so much for reading my stories-- mille grazie-- and for all the comments you've shared with me.