Monday, June 24, 2013

OMG a Recipe: Easy-Breezy Summer Daze

You watch those food/lifestyle television shows with the perfect hostess/cook who's throwing a perfectly elegant multi-course summer dinner with all the trimmings...and you just want to fling some of their perfect, sun-ripened tomato gazpacho all over that perfect summer-white maxi dress they're wearing with unnerving ease.  A summer-perfect party sounds like a grand idea until you realize you wind up being stuck in the kitchen, madly prepping dishes so they can be served at just the right time, or you're hovering over a hot grill the whole time, searing perfect grill-marks on an endless parade of meatly delights. Is the truly simple summer dinner party a myth or can this winged-unicorn-wizard truly exist? Wonder no more... behold: the Nearly Cook-Free Easy-Breezy Summer Menu!

Bacon Balsamic Summer Sliders - Photo by Wasabi Prime

I was very lucky to get the opportunity to play around with local catering company, Gourmondo's, line of specialty dressings. They're made fresh, in small batches, and along with flavoring their own catered foods, you can find their dressings in several stores in and around the Northwest. I'm happily familiar with their company, as I've had their food at events, and they do beautifully delicious work -- their tagline is The Art of Food, which is 100% true, as they create really elegant menus with a nod towards fresh, locally-sourced ingredients. And they don't just do big, fancy parties, they have a great box lunch menu, if you're ever doing an all-day work event and you need to bring in food -- don't punish your co-workers with lackluster rubber-chicken club sandwiches; that all-day meeting could turn zombie apocalypse right-quick. Get these people a fresh panini, for the love of God.

Bottled goodness and easy summer dishes, courtesy of  Gourmondo - Photos by Wasabi Prime
But I wasn't throwing some big fete or wrangling a bunch of cubicle jockeys for an all-day morale event -- this was just a simple, at-home summer meal that I not only wanted others to enjoy, but by golly, I wanted to enjoy it, too. And that's the kicker of any party, being able to not only host it, but be a partygoer myself. For that reason, fresh dressings are a lifesaver. You're not wondering how to season things just-so, and the fact that you can just do a quick drizzle of that flavor onto simply prepared dishes right as they're being served makes for much less prep time, away from the party. Which is why you need quality dressings, not the stuff that came in a plastic jug with dehydrated spices and weird orange flecks of I-don't-know-what. Gourmondo's dressings taste super fresh and pack quite a bit of flavor, plus each one is unique, so you don't just feel like you're making variations of the same thing. For that reason, I put together a super-simple summer meal with several dishes and using just a few of Gourmondo's dressings.

Easy appetizers - balsamic/pepper melon wrapped in prosciutto - Photo by Wasabi Prime
Appetizer of Gibraltar: Prosciutto-wrapped balsamic-pepper melon slices. It's a favorite and a classic, and an ideal summer starter, given its perfect mix of fresh, sweet and savory. It's also thankfully unfussy since you can serve it at room temperature, and it's such a great palate-prepper for a meal to come. You can prepare some of it ahead, removing the rind and seeds of the melon the day before, and slicing into wedges. The morning of your party, lightly toss the melon wedges in a little fresh-cracked pepper and Gourmondo's Classic Balsamic Dressing. It's got a lovely sweet-savory flavor, more rich and creamy than a drizzle of plain balsamic. It's a thick dressing so I'd recommend watering it down a little with some olive oil to get it to a more loose consistency for coating the melon. Right before serving, wrap each slice with the prosciutto. You can do this an hour before serving. Present the wedges on a platter with nuts, a hard cheese like Parmesan, and some extra non-wrapped melon for any vegetarians. The melon tossed with the dressing and pepper is good on its own, too.

The proscuitto-wrapped melon slice recipe is so easy, it should be an UnRecipe (serves 4-6 as an appetizer): 1 ripe canteloupe (rind/seeds removed, sliced into 8-10 wedges), 8-10 proscuitto slices, 1 tablespoon of Gourmondo's Classic Balsamic Dressing, a drizzle or two of olive oil to loosen the dressing, fresh cracked pepper to taste.

Summery-fresh zucchini in a raw salad - Photo by Wasabi Prime
Tis the season for summer squash, and you often see zucchini on the grill, searing away, but it's just as delicious raw. It's got a tender skin that you can leave on, the seeds are delicate, making it a very prep-friendly squash, just remove the ends, slice, and eat. I made a raw zucchini salad, dressed with Gourmondo's Tuscan Herb Dressing, which is like an herbaceous punch in the tastebuds, with a sweet, zesty finish. The dressing works perfectly with the delicate raw zucchini, enhancing the freshness of the salad, while adding a lot of flavor. You could do this with cucumber, but I find that releases an annoying amount of water and can turn to mush pretty fast; the nice thing about zucchini is that it's more hearty and it really soaks up the dressing like a marinade. It's another easy summer dish because there's no time hovering over a grill, you can slice the zucchini a few hours before serving, and then dress it right before serving. Fresh-shaved Parmesan is a great garnish and flavor addition, as it adds some savory nuttiness to the salad. You'll be making this one again and again, just for yourself when it's too dang hot to cook. It's seriously one of the most refreshing things you'll ever eat.

Herbed zucchini salad recipe so easy, it should be an UnRecipe (serves 4-6 as a side): 4 to 5 zucchini, tops/ends removed and sliced thinly; 2 tablespoons of Gourmondo's Tuscan Herb Dressing; fresh cracked pepper to taste; shavings of Parmesan to finish. Note: I used a mandolin to make the lengthwise slices because they looked pretty, but you could slice them thinly into coins -- your fingers will be thankful for it.

The most refreshing salad you'll ever have - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Another wonderfully summer-friendly dish is a panzanella, or Italian bread salad. I know, you're thinking, when did this become a salad party? To that, I say: why not? Salads are probably some of the prettiest-looking dishes, since they use so many raw, fresh ingredients, which is what summer is all about. You eat with your eyes first, and having platters of bright-hued melon, verdant green zucchini, and then this ode to the Italian flag with red tomatoes, fresh green basil and creamy fresh mozzarella, how could this not be an elegant feast for the eyes and the appetite? Or maybe I'm just thinking what my protein-hungry weight-lifting Crossfit friends would say. Don't worry, dudes, the meat is coming up!

One of my favorite things was to sop-up tasty dressings or sauces with bread as you're finishing a meal, so panzanella would of course be a favorite salad. Use a good, crusty baguette, maybe toast it a little or let it slightly stale overnight, because you want it a little moisture-starved before it gets tossed in Gourmondo's Classic Balsamic dressing, along with shreds of fresh basil, fresh mozzarella and whole grape tomatoes. The classic panzanella is stale bread with tomatoes and other vegetables, but this version is tossed with fresh arugula, which adds a nice peppery bitterness to balance out the richness of the cheese and the dressing-soaked bread. It's not a waify mixed green salad, this is quite hearty and could be a meal all its own. And it's another crazy-easy prep dish, as you can put together the whole salad a few hours before serving (minus the dressing), keep it in the refrigerator and toss with the Classic Balsamic mixed with some plain olive oil before setting out. It's good freshly-tossed and as the bread continues to soak up the dressing, it makes the salad even more rich. Another nice thing about arugula is how sturdy a green it is -- it will hold its fresh crispness for a couple of hours, even dressed in this salad.

Panzanella UnRecipe Salad (Serves 4-6 as a side): 3 cups' worth of stale or lightly toasted baguette torn into small bite-sized pieces, 1 pint of whole grape tomatoes, 1 ball of fresh mozzarella (about 8 oz) torn up into small pieces, 1/4 cup of fresh basil torn or cut into ribbons, 3 cups of fresh arugula, 3 tablespoons of Gourmondo's Classic Balsamic dressing loosened with a few drizzles of olive oil, fresh cracked pepper. If you want to make this salad heartier/meatier, toss with cut-up chunks of dry salami or top with ribbons of prosciutto.

Bready cheesy panzanella salad with marvelous mini-burgers! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Where's the Beef? I promised there would be one meaty dish, and I offer up the almighty mini-burger, aka The Slider. You could do full-sized burgers, but I like sliders for multi-course meals like this because you don't get full on one thing, you have room on your plate for a little of everything. Sure, you could do a steak or any other kind of meat, but it's not summer till you get a fresh-seared hamburger in your hand, even if it's a small one. Mini burgers are also nice because they cook quickly, so you're not manning the grill for the whole dinner. You could even skillet-cook the patties, since they're so small. The bottom line is: you're not endlessly slaving over a hot cooking element in the dead of summer. I had never tried Gourmondo's Bacon Balsamic dressing, which uses an olive oil infused with alderwood-smoked bacon, which makes it great as a meat marinade. It's got such a light smoky infusion, so you're not overwhelmed with smoky bacon-ness; I could see using this on a mixed green salad with apples, cranberries and goat cheese crumbles, with the dressing adding just a savory hint of the Divine Swine.

Everyone has their own way of topping a burger, so I leave that up to you -- use your favorite cheese (or no cheese), tomatoes, veggies, whatever. The thing I recommend trying is take your 2 pounds of ground beef and pour in a tablespoon of the Bacon Balsamic dressing and gently incorporate it into the meat. Have it sit for a few hours to marinate before forming the patties and cooking. The smoky balsamic will infuse the meat with a nice depth of flavor, but not overtake the earthy beef -- just a small amount of dressing will do. You can always add more as a topping sauce to the finished burgers if you really want to bring out the bacon balsamic. For my sliders, I topped them with leftover mozzarella and arugula from the salad (waste not!) and I happened to have some fresh-made guacamole -- not a requirement, but very tasty on a burger. The flavor-infused meat is good on its own, simply cooked, placed between a lightly toasted bun; doesn't have to be any more complex than that. I like using dinner rolls for slider buns -- the soft, squishy-ness of the bread soaks up the burger's flavor very nicely and it compresses for easy eating. Depending on the group you're feeding, two sliders per person is plenty, with all the side dishes. Having a big meal of fresh salads with one indulgent dish like a mini-hamburger is ideal summer eating, when you hate to be full of heavy, too-rich foods on a hot day. You'll feel satisfied after all these different dishes, but it won't weigh you down into the dark, evil dungeon of Castle Food Coma-vania. And that's the success marker of any party... right?

Many thanks to Gourmondo for letting me have a summer dinner party with their delicious dressings, and I hope this inspires you to have your own summer party and enjoy it, too!

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