Thursday, June 30, 2011

If You Can't Stand the Heat...

I’ve said it before, but summer is my least favourite time of year.  It doesn’t help that I have my own internal furnace chugging away furiously, 24-7-365.  So, when the mercury soars, the last thing I want to do is spend time in a tortuously hot kitchen.  If only appetites dwindled along with my desire to cook!  Sadly, they don’t.  I’ve had to devise creative ways to get food on the table, while generating the least amount of indoor heat as possible.

Barbecuing is a great way to avoid heating the house.  Most everything can be cooked on the grill, whether on direct or indirect heat.  All that’s needed are a few good recipes, some heat-resistant cookware, and maybe a little shade.  Metal pans are the best option if cookware is required.  Avoid using pans with Teflon-coatings or with handles made of plastic or wood as most won’t take the high heat or open flame.  Aluminum foil is great for steam-cooking but use it over indirect heat for best results.  To limit our use of aluminum (cookware or foil,) we use parchment pouches on an old cookie sheet to steam vegetables or seafood.  Also glassware, as I discovered when baking our favourite meatloaf on the barbecue, can be dangerous...although, the explosion didn’t actually take place until I removed the loaf pan and placed it on a trivet to cool.  Cast iron and stainless steel are excellent cooking vessels and both clean up well.  Not everyone has access to a barbecue, though.  And, sometimes it’s simply too windy to enable thorough cooking, in a timely manner, on a barbecue.

Our most common way to get meals on the table in summer is to cook certain components in the early morning, when the house is coolest and there are still hours remaining to dissipate the generated heat through open, shaded windows.  Those meal components are foods like carbohydrates and proteins – generally the foods requiring the longest cooking times.

Potatoes, pasta, rice and beans we use most often in cold salads, but they can also be used to create quick, hot meals.  No matter the weather, baked or par-boiled potatoes produce the best oven (and barbecue) fries, in my opinion.  Pasta, cooked "al dente," and refrigerated, keeps for a few days and can be added to (re)heated sauces until warmed through.  Rice is probably our most versatile cook-ahead ingredient.  Aside from the stir-fry option (where pre-cooked rice is optimal,) it can be used as a base for frittatas, cold salad, and a (whole grain) breakfast “pudding.”  One idea I haven’t yet tried is to form a pizza shell by packing cooked rice (1/4-1/2 inch thick) into a pizza pan and then pre-baking it for a few minutes before adding toppings and finishing the cooking process.

Caution is required if you cook enough proteins  to last for two or three days of meals.  They must be cooked thoroughly, stored in air-tight containers, and refrigerated promptly. Instead of making a couple slices of bacon for breakfast, we roast a pan full (in the oven or on the barbecue) and then we have extra to crumble onto salads, baked potatoes, or to add a little protein to a quick veggie wrap.  We cook several chicken breasts or pork chops, or larger cuts like roasts and whole chicken, to use as salad or pizza toppings, or in stir-fries, sandwiches, fajitas and wraps.   Boiled eggs are something we keep on hand, year-round.  One hard-boiled egg, sliced, on toast, is my choice for an easy, high-protein meal before beginning morning exercise.  Those eggs also supplement cold summer salads (like potato, macaroni, and rice,) in tasty ways and, with the addition of a variety of vegetables, make those salads complete meals.

Last but not least, dessert.  The custard or syrups required to make ice cream, sorbet and frozen pops often require some cooking or boiling.  Jellied desserts (and salads) are also cooling, without the excessive calories of most frozen desserts.  With just a few minutes of morning prep, your family can enjoy these chill treats at any time of day.
Sweltering over a hot stove can really add sizzle to summer, and not in a good way.  Cooking certain ingredients in advance, in quantity, at the coolest time of day, dramatically lessens the amount of heat generated in the home.  Not only can you save time and heat-exhaustion, you’ll also save on air-conditioning and energy costs for the stove, oven and/or barbecue.  I like the fact that cooler meals don’t raise the body’s core temperature as much (though, this may be more imperative for women like me who “roast” without cooking anything.)  Best of all, you’ll have healthy food, fast – no need to resort to fast-food when heat overwhelms.