Summer meals in short order

How to cope when cooking starts to seem like a dreary chore.

Dinner preparation has been a bully this summer - demanding attention, getting in my face, challenging me to show my stuff when I'm in vacation mode.

This is a new experience. I imagined I'd always gleefully try exotic and complicated recipes at least three times a week. I never really understood people who view cooking as a chore rather than a creative outlet.

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Now I get it. At about 6 p.m. since the official start of summer, I've regularly thought: "Oh, no. I have to figure out what to make - again."

Last week I dumped the victim mentality - and the recipes that I've made over and over this summer - and went on the offense with a self-help program targeting my malady - boredom.

Some of my first thoughts were to wade deeper into ethnic recipes, to look beyond supermarket offerings of beef, pork, lamb and chicken to, say, rabbit, sweetbreads, and maybe even buffalo. I considered trying home methods for sous-vide, the extremely low-temperature method of cooking that's the rage among chefs.

Then I thought: Never mind.

While I may eventually go in those directions occasionally, I realized that what I needed now was less labor-intensive challenges. My best defense against the daily-dinner bully might be working with easily obtained and prepared ingredients.

So I focused on tweaking sensible ideas involving the usual suspects of late summer - chicken, corn, tomatoes, zucchini, sugar snap peas, watermelon and berries.

In selecting recipes, I focused on outdoor grilling to limit excessive dishwashing, which could be a factor in my malaise. I eliminated any recipe that would require turning on the oven for more than an hour, another common excuse for ordering takeout in the summer.

I also realized that I had become a sitting duck for the dinnertime bully by not equipping myself with ingredients, instead lazily waiting until the daily 6 p.m. reveille to figure out what to prepare. Now I'm deciding roughly what I will cook at least two days ahead.

What follows are a handful of solutions to the late summertime dinner blues.

Little is easier or more unexpected than the delicious appetizers made of sliced raw zucchini spread with flavored cream cheese and olives.

And Mario Batali does know his way around a grill. The chicken recipe is his, and is ideal to serve with his version of Italian grilled corn. (Cook the corn on the hot part of the grill, turning a quarter-turn every two minutes. Roll the ears in olive oil and vinegar, then dredge in grated Parmesan, and sprinkle with chopped fresh mint and hot red pepper flakes.)

Because the chicken thighs are breaded (that's the "agliata" part), they rest on the cooler part of the grill. The corn crisps on its hotter part, and afterward, it is dredged in Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

The corn and the chicken - with its tangle of tender-crisp sugar snap peas - are glorious in both taste and appearance.

And, big surprise: Tomatoes and watermelon are surprisingly compatible, especially when they are combined and laced with herbs - coriander seeds, dill and parsley.

There's nothing like success to bolster confidence and stave off boredom.

And, while I'm not completely back to anticipating 6 p.m. on summer's remaining evenings, I've fired a spitball in the direction of the daily dinner bully.


Zucchini Bites

Makes 36 slices

1 medium to large zucchini, cut into 1/4-inch slices

1/2 of an 8-ounce tub of cream cheese with salmon (about 1/2 cup ) or 1/2 cup semisoft cheese with garlic and herbs

1 tablespoon sliced or chopped pitted ripe olives

1 tablespoon snipped fresh chives

1. Pat the zucchini slices dry with paper towels.

2. Spread each on one side with cream cheese and sprinkle with olives and chives.

3. Serve immediately. Makes about 36 slices.

- From 500 Five-Ingredient Recipes (Better Homes and Gardens, 2002)

Per serving (based on 8): 56 calories, 1 grams protein, 2 grams carbohydrates, 1 grams sugar, 5 grams fat, 15 milligrams cholesterol, 112 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.


Chicken Thighs With Snap Peas and Agliata

Makes 6 servings

12 garlic cloves, crushed

1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 oil-packed an   chovy fillets, drained

1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley

2 cups fresh bread crumbs

12 boneless, skinless chicken thighs

3 shallots, sliced to 1/4 inch

1/2 teaspoon anchovy paste

1 pound sugar snap peas, blanched in boiling water chilled in ice and drained

Olio piccante for drizzling, optional (see note)

1. Combine the garlic, 1/2 cup of the oil, the anchovies, parsley and bread crumbs in a food processor and zap until smoothish.

2. Put the thighs in a large bowl, turn and coat well with the bread-crumb mixture. Arrange on a platter and refrigerate for 15 minutes.

3. Prepare a grill for indirect grilling. Place the chicken thighs skinned side up on the cooler part of the grill. Cover, and grill, turning once, until cooked through, about 15 minutes a side.

5. Meanwhile, heat the remaining 3 tablespoons oil in a 10-to-12-inch saute pan over medium heat. Add the shallots and anchovy paste and cook, stirring occasionally, until the shallots are soft, about 5 minutes. Add the snap peas and stir, just until heated through. Transfer the snap peas to a platter and set aside.

5. Arrange the thighs atop the peas; serve with a drizzle of olio piccante, if desired.

Note: To make olio piccante: combine 2 cups of olive oil with 5 coarsely chopped jalapeño peppers, ½ cup red pepper flakes, and 1 tablespoon paprika. Bring to a simmer. Pour the mixture into a heatproof bowl and allow it to cool before refrigerating for at least 8 hours. Strain and refrigerate in a tightly sealed jar. Use within 10 days.

Per serving (without olio piccante): 508 calories, 34 grams protein, 30 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 28 grams fat, 117 milligrams cholesterol, 441 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.


Heirloom Tomato and Watermelon Salad

Makes 6-8 servings

6 to 8 heirloom tomatoes

1 small to medium yellow watermelon

1 small to medium red watermelon

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon cracked coriander seeds

Sea salt and cracked black pepper

1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh dill

1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1. Cut the tomatoes and watermelon flesh into 1-inch chunks.

2. In a large bowl, combine the tomatoes, watermelon, oil, coriander and salt and pepper to taste. Gently toss, taking care not to bruise the fruit.

3. Sprinkle with the dill and parsley and serve immediately.

- From The 150 Best American Recipes (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)

Note: Sprinkle the tomatoes and watermelon with salt before they're mixed. Let them stand for up to ½ hour to bring out the flavors.

Per serving (based on 8): 285 calories, 6 grams protein, 63 grams carbohydrates, 51 grams sugar, 5 grams fat, no cholesterol, 13 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.