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THE BEST OF SUMMER / ENTERTAINING

Nice & Easy Does It

Celebrating the Season With a Fuss-Free Meal Under the Open Sky

June 07, 1998|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | Michelle Huneven's last article for the magazine was about three up-and-coming pastry chefs

Summer, the season of enervating days and mild evenings, is almost here again. Since nobody wants to spend hours in a steamy kitchen, preparing food for this time of year should be, well, a breeze. And wilted appetites need cajoling. Not with stick-to-your-ribs fare, but light, flavorful food as fragrant and perishable as a peach, as fresh and sweet as just-picked corn, as bright and vivid as the sunlight condensed in a vine-ripened tomato.

We found a perfect--and perfectly easy--summer menu in "Intimate Gatherings," a new cookbook by Ellen Rose, who founded the Cook's Library bookstore in Los Angeles, and Jessica Strand, a Los Angeles-based writer and knowledgeable home cook. A compilation of seasonal menus for small dinner parties, their book is aptly subtitled "Great Food for Good Friends."

This menu was expressly designed to be eaten outside, or wherever it's coolest, with people you know well and love. "The recipes are intentionally uncomplicated," Rose says, "so when your guests gather in the kitchen, it's easy to visit with them. These should be good friends and/or family, so you won't have to stop everything to entertain them. Cooking and visiting, and then eating--that's the rhythm we wanted to instill in all our menus."

This particular summer meal also happens to be vegetarian. But meat eaters may not notice and certainly won't mind a missing chop or chicken breast: After all, haven't we been waiting for months to eat our fill of the season's corn and tomatoes, stone fruit and berries?

When guests start arriving, greet them with a big glass or goblet of sangria--not the murky purple stuff with the occasional stained fruit bobbing into view, but white sangria, clear, sparkly and refreshing. Though the recipe calls for pear, green grapes and strawberries, Strand claims any fruit will do. "Almost any infusion you can think of will be pretty because you can actually see the shapes and colors."

Goat cheese mixed with chopped fresh herbs and spread on endive leaves makes an incredibly easy and tasty hors d'oeuvre. "The bitterness of the endive is perfect with the creamy cheese," Strand says, "and it looks quite elegant." Whipped cream cheese can be substituted for all or part of the goat cheese.

Fresh sweet corn comes off the cob for a subtly spicy corn chowder that can be made ahead and reheated at the last minute. Lime juice, some sneaky jalapeno and chopped cilantro give this soup a Southwestern edge. Although the recipe suggests you puree all of the soup, you can create more texture, Strand says, if you set a cup of the corn kernels aside and add them to the pureed soup during the final cooking.

The centerpiece of this meal is an herbed tomato tart that looks as if it's been shipped straight from a wood-fired oven in Tuscany. This is one of those great, gloriously easy recipes that serves the home cook well: It's delicious, portable and impressive to behold. "Everyone at the Cook's Library has already prepared this tart more than once," Rose says.

The Parmesan pastry is made with a few short pulses of the food processor and can be prepared a day or more in advance--just let it soften up for half an hour after taking it out of the refrigerator. The rusticity of the crust means that no artful crimping is required. In fact, the simpler the pastry treatment, the more charming the results. The recipe calls for ripe plum tomatoes, but any firm, small tomato can be used. Strand suggests small yellow and orange tomatoes for heightened color.

The tomato tart is served with a composed salad of arugula, caramelized shallots and toasted pecans--"a very earthy dish," Rose says. In the slow cooking, the natural sweetness of the shallot comes across loud and clear. "It's a reminder that whenever something is chopped or minced, it loses some of its flavor," Strand says. Small roasting onions, or cipolline, may be substituted for shallots, but they might need to be cooked longer. Walnuts can be substituted for pecans.

What could be better for dessert than a mixed summer fruit cobbler served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream? This versatile and virtually fail-proof recipe, with its shortbread crust, comes from Rose's Aunt Jennie. "My Aunt Jennie was a maiden aunt who lived with my grandmother," Rose says. "Aunt Jennie was the only person in the family who could actually put a meal on the table. For this reason, she thought she could cook.

"Her efforts were always applauded, but not always edible--except for this fruit cobbler, which was invariably delicious. And she would make it no matter what fruit was in season. We would tell her the reason we weren't eating much dinner was that we were saving room for her cobbler."

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