I really hate to be critical (OK, not so much) but… Don’t our oppressive summer temperatures make y’all crave a lighter cooking style? Are you with me here? Have you ever noticed that foods that are in season when the weather is hot, such as summer squash, tend to be less dense and require shorter cooking times than their cold weather cousins—root vegetables? Coincidence? I think not!
I love rich, deeply flavored, complex, slow braises more than most, and don’t even get me started on my passion for a gruyère-laden potato gratin. But when we’re in the clutches of the dog days, shorter cooking times and bright flavors are what turn me on.
So, what am I getting at? Seasonal menus, that’s what. Ya know, when I was in the restaurant business, I would always change the menu seasonally. There are many obvious advantages to this strategy, beginning with keeping things fresh and interesting for the cooks. Never underestimate the importance of an engaged employee. Giving cooks the opportunity to help craft new dishes instills pride and ownership in what they produce each day. Secondly, adapting to the seasons means you can actually buy from local farmers. Thirdly, simple, fresh, quickly prepared summer food tastes better when it’s hot; and rich, warming, comforting winter food tastes better when it’s cold. Therefore, it’s just plain ludicrous for a restaurant in the 904 to offer a menu featuring braises and root vegetables at the end of July. A day at the beach ain’t the same as a day of snow skiing, and menus ought to reflect the native climate.
It’s actually rather easy to adjust menus and eating habits to the heat. The first step is to purchase local summer produce. You’re not going to find a lot of carrots, parsnips, and butternut squash coming out of the ground around here in July. Instead, select summer squashes, eggplants, and peppers.
I like to grill eggplant with a Sicilian-style spice blend and sauce them with a vibrant red pepper vinaigrette. A handful of peppery arugula, and feta or goat cheese really complement these flavors. Try stuffing patty pan squashes with a farce of quinoa, cucumber, herbs, tomatoes, jalapenos, and lots of olive oil, then top with grated manchego. A short 20 minutes in the oven and voilà! Pure summer flavor.
If you grill a few Mayport shrimp, an exquisitely fresh filet of snapper or maybe a quail or two to accompany these light, bright delicious dishes, you’ll truly be the Cheffed-Up master of the dog days of summer.
Chef Bill’s Roasted Red Pepper Vinaigrette
• 1 red bell peppers, roasted, skinned and seeded
• 4 roasted garlic cloves
• 1 tsp. ginger, minced
• 1/2 shallot, brunoise
• 1 tsp. dijon
• 1/8 tsp. turmeric
• 2 tsp. jalapeno, brunoise
• 1 tsp. honey
• 2 oz. rice vinegar
• 2 tbsp. basil, rough chop
• 5 oz. canola oil
• 1 oz. olive oil
• Salt to taste
1. Place all the ingredients except theoils in a blender.
3. When smooth, begin to emulsify in canola oil.
4. Taste for salt, blend in olive oil. Check consistency, adjust if necessary.
Email Chef Bill Thompson, owner of Fernandina’s Amelia Island Culinary Academy, for inspiration and to get Cheffed-Up!