July in Philadelphia does not disappoint if you love having your clothes cling to you, doused with dampness, after walking only a block. But even with these scorching-hot days and muggy nights, take a walk one evening to note all the die-hard diners, insistent on eating al fresco no matter what Mother Nature whips up. The wait staff at restaurants with outdoor options probably lose a pound or two each day just running around to refill water glasses.
Maybe it's a thumb in the eye of summer heat or just the relief that it's no longer winter; whatever the reason, people love to eat outside, even if they have to convince themselves that they are dining on the coast, enjoying a light evening breeze, rather than dripping sweat into their main courses.
I admit to being among this crowd. Dining outdoors is one of the great pleasures of good weather, and spending a few hours with friends and family – sharing wine or cocktails and a light meal in the late evening – is a special occasion, even if there is no specific occasion to celebrate.
An outdoor meal at home usually involves grilling – that quintessential American symbol of summer. Even people who hate to cook seem to love to grill. However, standing over a fire in 92 degrees with 80 percent humidity while your guests are sipping ice-cold beverages is not always appealing.
For the same reason that cold winter nights make us crave braised meat with rich sauces and roasted root vegetables, summer heat and humidity also change our appetites. There are foods that feel naturally cool and refreshing (think watermelon), especially when a walk to pick up the morning paper leaves us slightly drenched.
One advantage of summer cooking is that room-temperature food is acceptable, which allows you to do most of the work ahead of time. Another advantage of summer, especially late July and August, is the availability of prime local produce.
Most people are used to having tomatoes and asparagus available year-round, but there's a huge taste difference when you can get produce much closer to "just-picked." Some incredible corn, asparagus and tomatoes are grown in our area. These ingredients on their own represent a celebration of summer, in addition to a welcome change from the usual bland supermarket fare.
For the recipes that follow, select plump, heavy tomatoes that are not too soft, and the more variety the better (plenty of markets now offer heirloom varieties with fantastic flavor and colors). Use crisp green stalks of asparagus (even taste it raw … if it's sweet then, it's going to be amazing when grilled).
Local summer vegetables are so flavorful that they require very little work. Add them to a simple grilled steak or piece of fresh fish, and you have the perfect dinner for a hot summer night.
All of the recipes that follow can be cooked ahead of time and served at room temperature, or you can finish them on the grill as your guests arrive. With a little forethought and preparation, you can be lounging with your guests while you all pretend to be sitting at surfside.
To make an easy garnish for this drink, use a Parisian scoop (aka melon-baller). These scoops can be found at any kitchen store and some supermarkets. The smaller size works better here.
1 medium-sized watermelon, peeled and half of it cut in chunks (save half the flesh for asparagus salad)
2 cups seltzer
2 cups ginger ale or lemon-lime soda
vodka, if desired
Put the watermelon chunks (no seeds) in a food processor or blender (do this in batches), and pass the liquid through a strainer. You can reserve the pulp for another use, if desired.
Just as guests are arriving, add the seltzer, ginger ale or lemon-lime and vodka, if using. Stir and serve over ice.
Garnish with little watermelon balls made with a Parisian scoop, if desired.
Serves 4 to 6.
Grilled Asparagus, Avocado and Watermelon Salad
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp. salt
juice from half of a lemon
2 large garlic cloves, sliced thin
large shallot, sliced thin
pepper to taste
bunch asparagus, washed and trimmed
1 Tbsp. honey
tabasco to taste
juice from one lime
jalapeño pepper, to taste (preferably fresh, or any hot pepper you like)
salt and pepper
avocado, cut in half and pit removed
cup diced watermelon
fresh chopped herbs (optional)
Prepare marinade: Whisk together the oil, salt, lemon juice, garlic, shallot and pepper to taste. Place asparagus in a shallow dish and pour marinade over top. Marinate for at least an hour.
Preheat the grill to high heat. When ready, remove asparagus from marinade, reserving marinade. Grill 2 to 3 minutes, unless stalks are very thick. Cool. Slice into 2-inch pieces.
To Assemble: Take the reserved asparagus marinade and season with the honey (you may like it sweeter, and so can add more honey; don't forget there will be sweet watermelon in the salad as well), tabasco, lime juice, minced jalapeño, salt and pepper. It should have a pleasant balance of heat and sweetness.
Spoon the avocado flesh out of the peel into a bowl. Try to cut into thin, regular slices.
Add the watermelon and grilled asparagus to the bowl; toss with the vinaigrette. Add fresh chopped herbs (optional).
Serve chilled or at room temperature.
Serves 4 to 6.
Tomato and Grilled-Bread Salad
This is a great side dish for the grilled flank steak, and also uses the same marinade.
4 large, ripe tomatoes: 4 to 6 thick slices and the rest large dice
5 thick slices of country bread (sourdough works or any crusty loaf) brushed with olive oil
3 cloves garlic (1 whole, 2 minced)
1/4 cup of fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup fresh parsley leaves (no stems)
reserved steak marinade to taste or about 1/2 of a cup
2 shallots, minced
1/4 cup red-wine vinegar (or to taste)
salt and pepper to taste
Cut 4 to 6 thick slices from tomatoes. Cut the remaining tomatoes in large dice. Set aside.
Grill the bread. Rub each piece with the whole garlic clove. Dice into 1-inch cubes.
Toss the bread with the diced tomatoes, herbs, marinade, shallots, vinegar, remaining garlic, salt and pepper. Make sure everything is well-coated. (Remember: Cold food takes more seasoning than hot food.)
For the Tomato Slices: When ready to serve, season tomato slices with oil, salt and pepper; grill them and place on plates.
Serve sliced steak on top of tomato slices. Garnish with tomato salad and drizzle with reserved marinade.
Serves 4 to 6.
Mustard and Herb-Grilled Flank Steak
For the Steak Marinade:
1/2 cup mustard of your choosing
1/4 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 large tomato
2 Tbsps. white wine
1/2 clove garlic (more if you enjoy garlic)
1 Tbsp. salt
1 cup parsley leaves
3/4 cup dill sprigs
1/4 cup basil leaves
jalapeño to taste
1/4 cup chives, sliced
1 to 11/2 lbs. flank steak
For the Marinade: Put everything for the steak marinade (from mustard through the jalapeño) in a food processor or blender; process until smooth. Remove to bowl or large cup, and stir in chives.
Season steak very well and pour on about 1/2 cup of the marinade (save the rest for tomato salad and sauce).
Cover the steak with the marinade; let sit for at least an hour.
Preheat the grill to high. Grill the steak to desired doneness.
Let rest. Slice thinly.
If serving cold or at room temperature, do not slice until ready to serve. This can be made a couple of hours ahead of time.
Serves 4 to 6.
Daniel Stern, the former executive chef of Le Bec-Fin, is a Philadelphia-based chef. You can find him at: www.diningdifferent.com.