During long summer days and warm weekends, I often find myself falling into one of two traps: either the "every recipe I make must be a daylong project" trap, or the "hey, it's summer, I'm gonna eat what I want" trap. And while slow-smoked pulled pork and barbecued ribs are all well and good, and burgers and mayo-based salads might be nice for the weekend or an occasional treat, none of those things are great if you're looking for something simple and satisfying that won't weigh you down on a Wednesday night.
For weeknight dining in the summer, I'm looking for easy recipes that I can start cooking when my wife gets home from work and have on the table well before the sun goes down, whether they're cooked indoors or out. Here are some of the staple dishes I come back to again and again. Dishes that are tasty and healthy enough to eat every single day.
Simple Make-Ahead Salads and Snacks
The king of dips! The sauce that eats like a meal! The backyard dinner party's best friend and all-time-greatest guest of honor! Nothing beats a simple bowl of good guacamole as an appetizer or snack. The secret to packing in the flavor is using a mortar and pestle.
Charred Salsa Verde
Sure, you can pick up a jar at the supermarket for emergencies, but if you want to do right by your chips, homemade is the only way to go. This charred salsa verde is my workhorse salsa—excellent as a sauce for all kinds of grilled meats and vegetables, or for dipping.
Lighter Potato Salad
I like my classic mayo-based potato salad just fine, but I prefer this mayo-free version, made with a vinaigrette that gets its creaminess from natural potato starch. It has a bright, clean flavor that goes well with a variety of grilled main dishes.
Super-Simple Buttermilk Slaw
Buttermilk makes a great creamy substitute for mayo in coleslaw, giving the shredded cabbage tanginess and body without hiding its fresh crunch.
Great Deviled Eggs
Instead of using the traditionally mayo-laden filling in a deviled egg, I cut mine with a good deal of olive oil to give it richness without heaviness.
The Best F#&king Caprese Salad
If tomatoes grew year-round, I would be content eating only Caprese salads until my final days. As it is, I'm content eating them during the few precious weeks of the summer when tomatoes are at their absolute ripest and juiciest. Forget cold slabs of rubbery mozzarella and chunks of insipid, underripe tomatoes. This is Caprese salad as it was meant to be.
Watermelon and Feta Salad
Caprese salad might be the classic, but watermelon and feta salads have been around long enough that they no longer deserve the title of new kid on the block. The real trick to making the best version is to use fantastic watermelon (duh), fantastic creamy feta cheese (duh), fresh mint (duh), and a big sprinkle of lemon zest (hey!).
A Simple Vinaigrette
Nothing can ruin great fresh greens faster than a heavy, overly sweet, shelf-stable salad dressing from the supermarket, and, honestly, a great vinaigrette is so easy to make that you have no excuse not to. This vinaigrette is as simple and classic as it comes, and it's the perfect dressing for fresh greens or chopped garden vegetables.
Okay, so making pizza dough from scratch isn't a Tuesday-after-work affair, but luckily, our technique for grilled pizza works great with store-bought dough. In fact, it'll even work great with one of those store-bought precooked pizza shells, provided you top it wisely. You can make pizza directly on a grill, or use a dedicated outdoor pizza oven, like the workhorse KettlePizza or the small but powerful Uuni 2S.
Black Bean Burgers
I do like the occasional big, beefy backyard burger, and maybe I'm getting weak in my middle age, but sometimes my body just says, "Please, no more beef fat," and I'm compelled to comply. Good thing my black bean burgers are just as satisfying, with a complex flavor and a robust, hearty texture. The trick is to partially dehydrate cooked black beans before forming the patties so that you end up with a denser, meatier bite. You don't have to be a vegetarian to love these burgers. Go ahead and put some bacon on them if you'd like.
Greek-Style Whole Grilled Chicken
Once I land on a technique that really works well, I like to make the most of it. Spatchcocking a chicken before grilling gives you perfectly crisp skin and juicy meat in both the thighs and the breasts, which is why I use that method for pretty much every grilled chicken recipe I've ever written. Last year's favorite was this version, flavored with fresh oregano and lemon.
Crispy Marinated Grilled Tofu
If you've had enough poorly grilled tofu inflicted upon you to turn you off the stuff for life, I implore you to give this method a shot. With a flavor-packed marinade and a slow-cooking technique that gives the tofu a dense, crisp, and meaty texture, it may well make a tofu convert out of you.
5-Minute Grilled Chicken
The only protein more maligned than tofu has to be boneless, skinless chicken breasts, and I get it. When improperly cooked, they're dry, bland, and stringy. But when cooked well, they can be some of the juiciest, most flavorful meat around. My technique is to cut them into thin cutlets, marinate them, and cook them 90% of the way through on one side only, which allows for deep browning without drying them out. A second coat of marinade after they come off the grill doubles up on flavor.
Extra-Plump Grilled Shrimp
Shrimp on the barbie sounds good in principle, but in practice, they're almost always rubbery and overcooked. We combine a couple of our favorite techniques—treating shrimp with baking soda, and bunching them up on the skewer—to ensure that our shrimp come out plump, juicy, and packed with grill flavor every time.
Thai Curry-Rubbed Halibut
Grilled fish is a summertime staple, and I love it with just a squeeze of lemon. But, for a more flavorful version, try combining Thai curry paste with olive oil and lemon juice to form a vinaigrette that works great not only as a marinade for fish, but also as a sauce for grilled fish and vegetables.
As Daniel has pointed out, a great Spanish-style potato and egg tortilla is just as good fresh out of the pan as it is at room temperature, or even cold from the fridge. That makes it perfect for summer. Make a couple on the stovetop one day, and you've got near-instant meals for the next few days.
Nothing says summer like freshly made pesto. For ours, we use a mortar and pestle to pull maximum flavor out of our basil. Toss the finished pesto with pasta, or dollop it into a bowl of soup and let summer commence.
Miso-Marinated Black Cod or Salmon
A sweet-and-savory miso marinade helps black cod or salmon get a gorgeous charred surface, while remaining tender and moist inside. I love these recipes because they work equally well under the broiler, in the toaster oven, or even on the grill.
This is my go-to meal when I look up at the clock and realize I haven't eaten all day, hunger is setting in, and I need something refreshing and delicious fast. I keep a container of homemade ponzu sauce in the fridge, which means that all I've got to do is boil some soba noodles and slice up some scallions (or other veggies), and a slurp-able, cool lunch is on the table.
What's that? You've never had grilled cabbage? Do yourself a favor and go fire up that grill right now. Nutty, crisp, tender, sauce-loving cabbage awaits. This version uses a sweet-and-spicy Thai-style sauce, but any creamy dressing will do.
Elotes (Mexican-Style Street Corn)
I have never met anyone who doesn't flat-out love this recipe. Start with perfectly grilled corn; slather it with a creamy sauce made with cheese, chilies, garlic, and lime; set it on the table; and watch people go all googly-eyed for the next few minutes. Just don't get in between them and the corn.
The ultimate outdoor finger food. Asparagus, even when it's not perfectly peak-of-spring stuff, is so good on the grill. The high heat quickly chars it, giving it a nutty sweetness while maintaining a juicy crunch. It's good with just a squeeze of lemon, but even better when you have garlicky, herb-packed aioli to dip it into.
Another potato salad variation that's low on mayo and big on flavor, this grilled version is as simple as it is delicious. Just make the dressing in a bowl and parboil the potatoes, then take it all outdoors to the grill. The grilled potatoes go right into the bowl with the dressing, straight off the grill. Finish it with a squeeze of grilled lemon for a smoky side dish.
Did I say that asparagus is the ultimate outdoor finger food? I might have lied, because padrón peppers (or more likely shishito, their easier-to-find cousins) char up like a dream on a hot grill and are definitely the ultimate outdoor finger food. Or, at least, they would be, if they weren't equally delicious blistered in a hot cast iron pan with olive oil.
Extra-Corny Corn Soup
If you want your summer in liquid form, look no further than this corn soup. I like to use the corncobs to flavor the stock for extra corniness. If you've got a pressure cooker, you can get even more flavor out of them, and in record time (though the recipe works just fine in a plain old Dutch oven).
I used to think that gazpacho wasn't much more than watered-down salsa. Boy, was I wrong. True gazpacho is a creamy, bread- and olive oil–based soup that is bright with fresh tomato flavor and sherry vinegar. Sometimes I like to go all out and make my two-day version. But other nights, my simple, toss-it-all-together-and-blend version fits the bill.
15-Minute Tomato Soup
This soup is a rare case in which I actually prefer canned tomatoes over fresh summer tomatoes—that archetypal tomato-soup flavor just doesn't come through with fresh ones. The beauty of this soup is that it uses bread and olive oil for its creaminess as opposed to dairy fat, so the tomato flavor stays bright and fresh. This version takes only 15 minutes start to finish, but if you've got a powerful blender, like a Vitamix or a Blendtec, you can even cook the soup right in the blender, turning a 15-minute meal into a five-minute one.
Extra Lime-y Limeade
Limeade is limeade, unless it's Stella's limeade. By macerating the rinds in sugar to extract their essential oils, you wind up with a concentrated lime base that makes the most intensely lime-y limeade I've ever had the pleasure to have sipped.
You want to know the secret to great sun tea? Skip the sun. It comes out better if you make it directly in the fridge. Okay, so this stuff isn't really sun tea, but whatever you want to call it—cold-brew tea, fridge tea, iced tea, et cetera—it's refreshing enough that your fridge should never be without it.
With the exception of perhaps an Aperol Spritz or a properly prepared Pastis, no drink says summer to me like a classic Pimm's Cup, made with Pimm's No.1, Sprite, and fresh cucumber, strawberries, and oranges.
Quick Strawberry (or Any Fruit) Shortcake
I rarely feel like baking, and in the summertime, even less so. Luckily, this strawberry shortcake recipe uses only five ingredients and about 10 minutes of active time, so even the baking-averse, like me, can get it on the table. If you don't have fresh strawberries, the recipe will work just as well with peaches, plums, cherries, apricots... basically any soft, juicy fresh berry or stone fruit you can think of. Go nuts!
Clafoutis, the sweet, eggy pancake from France, whether it's made with cherries, berries, or plums, is another almost-zero-effort baked dessert that I turn to for an easy summer evening. The fact that you can bake it directly in a cast iron skillet makes it an even easier pill to swallow.
Blueberries, lemon curd, and whipped cream make for a great sweet-tart combo. We use Greek yogurt in this recipe to heighten that contrast and add even more creaminess. What do I say to anyone who doesn't try this recipe? I pity the...no. Even I can't make a joke that dumb.