Changing Seasons in the Kitchen: Dealing with Summer Heat

The other day, a glossy yellow leaf swirled to the ground as I trudged through my neighborhood in hot, steaming north Florida. I sighed as I stepped over hard magnolia seed pods littering the road. And, for a split second, I thought of the change of seasons, of how they used to mark my years, dividing them up like pieces of cake or pie.

Anywhere else, or just about anywhere in parts of North America, I’d be setting the oven to 350°F and baking bread, pies, cakes, or pizza, maybe a pork roast or oven-fried chicken. But because beef is so expensive these days, roast beef is but a figment of my deep-seated memories, only an imaginary friend now.

Living where the only ice in my life stays in the freezer, or at least just floating in a shot or two of gin, means the end of the incessant snow shoveling of a past life. Year-round greenery and sunshine, too.

Cutting board and dry sausage (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

But something is missing.

Although some seasonality exists here, it’s barely perceptible, aside from the intense numbing heat and humidity of the summers. And for a cook, that soul-sapping heat limits what happens in the kitchen.

At least in mine.

Catalan stew (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Pundits focus on the produce, the vegetables, the fruit, when they write about seasonality. But rarely is there much ink devoted to ambient heat.

English cookery author, Elizabeth David, met that challenge when she wrote Summer Cooking (1955):

My object in writing this book has been to provide recipes for just such dishes [seasonal], with emphasis on two aspects of cookery which are increasingly disregarded: the suitability of certain foods to certain times of the year, and the pleasure of eating the vegetable, fruits, poultry, meat or fish, which is in season, therefore at it best, most plentiful, and cheapest.

Another thing: I think of how kitchens used to be in another building, away from the main house, partly to avoid the risk of fire, and to hide the servants from the gaze of visitors and employers alike. But another aspect, possibly not intended, lies with the reality that the heat of the fire, the stove, radiated far from where daily life occurred. Of course, this holds true only in some cases.

That is why, in this climate, I see the virtues of having a place outside the house where cooking could take place at the height of summer.

Some people with a lot of money do build elaborate outdoor kitchens.

But for those us with limited wallet power, there are less expensive solutions to cooking in the heat of summer:

  1. Invest in a small portable electric oven. Most are not as good as the oven in the average stove, but will usually do a good job of cooking certain dishes.
  2. Seek out recipes for composed salads such as Salade Niçoise.
  3. Crank up the grill and learn to cook pizza there. Plus the usual suspects, even grilled vegetable or even fruit – peaches are good.
  4. Consider Scandinavian Smørre­brød.
  5. Rely on takeout as a last resort!

Although Richard Olney dismissed the work of his sister-in-law Judith (along with disdaining most other people, he being something of a misanthrope), her book, Summer Food (1978), contained some good ideas for contending with the challenges of cooking in summer heat.

Of course, many books similar to David’s and Olney’s now exist. Take a look.

Bon appétit, as Julia always said!