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IN THE KITCHEN

Light, Lazy, Luscious

August 17, 1995|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES DEPUTY FOOD EDITOR

'It is hardly surprising that inexperienced cooks and hostesses do not stop to think whether a cassoulet of haricot beans, sausages, pork and bacon or an enormous dish of choucroute garnie are suitable for a hot summer evening," wrote Elizabeth David in her book "Summer Cooking."

She was referring, of course, to summer in England, where on a particularly blazing August day the temperature might reach all the way into the 80s. That explains her inclusion of such un-summery-to-us dishes as stewed grouse, lamb shoulder with turnips and rillettes (basically, whipped pork fat).

I'm all in favor of rillettes in general; it's just not my idea of something to eat on the back porch under a sweltering summer sun. And I certainly wouldn't want to be the one who had to stand stirring the pot while those delicious little bits of piggy rendered.

During the dead of summer in Southern California, it's hard enough getting the urge to eat, much less to cook.

At my house, summer dinners tend to be the kind that can be put together quickly, without heating up the kitchen too much. If there's meat--and there isn't a lot of it during hot weather--it's usually fixed out back on the grill.

Last week, for example, I practically lived on this: toasted whole-grain bread, each slice spread with a quarter of a ripe avocado from our back-yard tree and sprinkled with lime juice and a little coarse salt. I ate this with sliced tomatoes and could probably be eating it still. There's something purely delicious about the way cold avocado meets warm bread--like vegetable butter.

In fact, while sandwiches are always a good thing, they are even better on summer evenings. Another night I piled leftover grilled vegetables (eggplant, zucchini and strips of portobello mushrooms) on bread that I had spread with olive paste. I dotted this with mozzarella and heated it until the cheese melted.

We also eat lots of salads. If you can find really fresh zucchini (usually, at this time of year, the trick seems to be avoiding it), slice it thin and dress it with olive oil and lemon juice, then toss in some fresh basil and toasted pine nuts.

You can also make a meal on cooked zucchini. Cut it in two or three pieces lengthwise, quarter those pieces, then put them in a covered saute pan with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, a smashed garlic clove and a couple of tablespoons of water. Cook over medium heat until the zucchini softens, then remove the lid and reduce the liquid to a glaze. The whole thing takes about 10 minutes, and if you love zucchini, you'll taste nothing better.

This is also a wonderful base for a frittata; simply add four or five beaten eggs and cook them slowly until the eggs are almost set. Sprinkle liberally with grated Pecorino cheese and run under the broiler until puffed. And you can make a summery frittata with sauteed onions and red and yellow bell peppers. Serve warm or room temperature.

Soups are also good, as long as you don't have to cook them too much. Find a good brand of canned whole plum tomatoes and you've got an embarrassingly good base from which to start. One of my favorites is pureed tomatoes with a little garlic, some balsamic vinegar, slivered basil and finely diced cucumber. Finish it with either a squirt of good olive oil or a dollop of fresh goat cheese.

You can even have stews. The other night I made a quick, spicy tomato sauce from chopped tomatoes, a whole clove of garlic (which I removed after the sauce was cooked) and red pepper flakes. I added good canned tuna and a couple of cans of garbanzo beans. With a small handful of coarsely chopped parsley, the stew was finished before the kitchen had a chance to warm up.

Of course, you could go back to David. Although some of her recipes could be considered summer food only in chilly old England, most sound delicious no matter where you are.

RATATOUILLE EN SALADE

I've adapted this recipe from David's "Summer Cooking." I love the addition of coriander seeds--a surprising aromatic touch that lifts what might otherwise be a too-heavy dish. When I served this with tiny lamb loin chops that I had grilled out back, the combination was perfect.

2 onions, chopped

Olive oil

2 eggplants

Coarse salt

2 sweet red peppers, chopped

4 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon coriander seeds

Chopped basil or parsley

Cook onions in skillet with 2 tablespoons oil over medium-low heat, until soft but not fried, about 10 minutes. With slotted spoon, transfer to large mixing bowl, draining to remove any excess oil.

While onions are cooking, cut eggplants in 1/4-inch squares, sprinkle well with coarse salt and place in colander to drain.

Add eggplant to oil left from onions (if necessary, add another tablespoon olive oil). Cover pan and cook over low heat until eggplant is soft, about 30 minutes. With slotted spoon, transfer to large mixing bowl, draining to remove any excess oil.

Repeat process with bell peppers.

When peppers are cooked, transfer onions and eggplant back into skillet. Add tomatoes, garlic and coriander seeds. Cook over medium heat until tomatoes have melted.

Remove from heat and chill. When cold, drain off any remaining oil and garnish with parsley or basil.

Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

202 calories; 17 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 14 grams fat; 19 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 2.11 grams fiber.

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