The summer table is all about medleys. With so much ripening in the garden, a vegetable isn’t just a side dish to accompany a carb-and-protein meal. Fresh produce inspires the meal, often stepping forth as the main event.
Few leafy greens tolerate hot weather, so summer salads are a more solid affair, with cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and the like. In winter, a savory dip might be scooped up with crackers, or frost-sweetened carrots. But a summer dip sits amid raw treats in blazing colors — scarlet peppers, golden cauliflower, midnight-purple beans.
Many classic recipes were built around midsummer bounty, such as ratatouille, a stew of tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini and peppers. Every culture has its summer vegetable soups, whether it’s a robust Italian minestrone and French basil-infused soupe au pistou or a spicy Spanish gazpacho, in which crunchy cucumbers, peppers and celery swim with tomatoes.
In summer, pasta gets a veggie-laden primavera sauce. Fried rice gets fresh-shelled peas, carrots, corn kernels and whatever’s in the garden. Is that traditional? Who cares?
My favorite summer medley is an Italian style antipasto, for which all the vegetables are gently cooked in extra virgin olive oil, and then served at room temperature. It might take two hours to prepare, but it makes for a festive treat.
You can speed up the process by cooking some of the ingredients on top of the stove and others in the oven. With some planning and careful attention (“Out of the kitchen, everyone!”) both can happen simultaneously.
The vegetables I most like to use this way are summer squash, eggplants, sweet peppers, bulb fennel, onions and paste tomatoes, also known as plum tomatoes because of their size and oval shape. Gathering them together at the beginning, washing them and prepping them so that they’re all ready to go will make the process go smoothly.
For the tomatoes, this means slicing them in half lengthwise and setting them, cut side up, on a rimmed cookie sheet slicked with olive oil. You can smear the tomatoes’ cut sides in the oil before arranging them, or drizzle it on afterward — or both. Sprinkle them with salt, pepper and herbs.
For the onions, use ones of a uniform medium size, peel them and trim the root ends so that they can sit flat, but with enough of the base intact to hold their shape. Slice off about a quarter-inch of the top and drizzle with extra virgin oil, salt and pepper. Crowd them into a baking dish that will hold them upright, with a half-inch of water.
Slice the peppers into rings. Trim the stems off the fennel bulbs (and any brown parts), leaving the bases (the root ends) intact. Hold them upright and slice down lengthwise into quarter-inch-thick fans.
For the summer squash, use any size (except for the monsters), slicing larger ones in rounds about a quarter-inch thick, and small ones in half lengthwise. I slice the eggplants the same way, then salt them and lay them on paper towels, letting the salt draw out some of the bitterness. I then wash off the salt under a running tap, squeezing the slices gently to compress and moisten them without letting them get soggy. This keeps them from absorbing too much oil in cooking.
Bake both the tomatoes and the onions at 350 degrees F for 45 minutes to an hour, until they’re soft, sweet and caramelized. The tomatoes should be reduced in size but still feel pillowy on the bottom. Both can share the oven if you would like, but make sure that they don’t burn.
While they’re cooking, get your biggest skillet, pour in a generous amount of olive oil and sauté all the vegetables, slice by slice, adding a little garlic from time to time. Hover over them, flipping them to give each side a golden color. Drain them on paper towels if you’d like, or take them straight to the serving platter, using a spatula or tongs. Check on the tomatoes and onions from time to time to see how they are doing.
These can all go onto individual dishes, but I love the way they look on one big platter. In Italy, this would be part of a larger spread of antipasti, which might include various kinds of salami, olives and cheese. Since the word antipasto means “before the meal,” a great more food is expected to follow.
I might fry up a few sausages in the skillet and set out some cheese, but usually the vegetables and a loaf of crusty bread will suffice. Well, maybe with a little cheese.