Cool Summer Cooking

greens potatoes w
Dinner baked outside = cool kitchen inside

When I used to visit my grandparents in the 1980s, the original 1940 gas stove was installed in the basement, having been replaced by a 1960-something model.  It was a beautiful appliance, porcelainized with that granite finish still seen on some cookware, and which looked nice for decades more than my 1990s white-finish gas stove.  The house had no air conditioning, and that stove was used all summer to reduce heat added to the main floor of the house.

Today many houses have air conditioning, but in the interest of energy conservation and comfort, as well as channeling the spirit of my grandmother, I don’t use the oven from May through September.

There are so many different small kitchen appliances that they are their own category of clutter.  Many promise, at least in the advertising copy, that holy grail of cooking: dinner without any actual work or time.  I’ve tried my share of them, and know that dinner without any work or time usually isn’t worth eating (unless the work and time were previously done, otherwise known as leftovers).

Small appliances can be tremendously convenient, though, for cooking outside of the kitchen – including cooking outside, keeping the house cool in the summer, and also reducing indoor humidity.  Added to the grill, they expand summer cooking options:

Slow cooker: dried beans, granola, fish, and all the slow cooker standards

Toaster oven: Anything that’s usually baked and can fit.  My toaster oven can hold a 6- muffin tin, a loaf pan, a 9″ pie plate, or an 11×9 rectangular dish.  Small baking pans can be easily sourced at thrift shops.

Grill: pizza and other flatbreads, vegetables, and the usual grilled fare

Today I had more of our endless stream of garden greens, some gigantic onions, and the end of a bag of potatoes.  So I made

Greens and Potato Gratin

This has flavors similar to spanakopita without the bother of a crust.

Preheat toaster oven to 350F.  Oil an 11×7 baking dish.  Scale recipe accordingly if this is too large for your toaster oven.

Steam until tender:
6-8 c chopped kale or collard greens
½ large onion, chopped

Microwave or steam until tender:
5 small red potatoes

Saute over low heat until soft and browning but not caramelized:
½ large onion, finely sliced lengthwise

Slice the potatoes.

Add to the greens/onions mixture
4 oz feta cheese, crumbled
2 tsp oregano
2 tsp dill
black pepper to taste
salt if desired (feta is salty)

Add half of the greens/onions mixture, then top with ½ of the onions and ½ of the potatoes. Brush potatoes with olive oil and repeat layers. Sprinkle more olive oil and feta over the top layer of potatoes if desired.

Bake until heated through, about 20 minutes when everything is hot on assembly.

Work Week Routines Part 2: Food


During the years that I was a SAHM, I learned to cook. I had been cooking for over a decade by that time, not including my undergraduate years of pasta and sandwiches, but meal preparation prior to really learning to cook was time-consuming and exhausting and also created massive piles of dishes.


By “learning to cook,” I mean

  • cooking without a recipe, just creating things based on what I have on hand
  • looking at a recipe, and knowing what would need to be changed to meet our preferences
  • reading ingredients, and mentally compiling the aroma and evaluating it

Although I generally like to cook, I am not excited about it Mondays through Fridays after a full day at work. As in the routines mentioned previously, I’ve also tried to minimize the daily brainpower needed to get everyone fed.

Here’s what works for me:

Meal plans: I shop weekly, locations selected based on what we need and what’s on sale. Considering what’s on hand and the week’s evening schedules, I sketch a rough meal plan.

Freezer cooking: We have a freezer in the garage and it is one of my major timesavers. I use it to freeze:

  • extra servings from meals
  • sauces or other meal components
  • garden produce
  • any ingredients that are convenient when frozen, such as ginger cubes or cooked rice
  • foods with short shelf life, such as nuts and cornmeal

The night before a busy day, it is heavenly to go “shopping” in the freezer and find something to thaw in the fridge.

Make lunches: We all eat homemade lunches every day, and we all eat very different lunches every day (since there are only 3 of us, that’s manageable). Here’s what we prepare:

  • Mari’s Pasta: Pasta for dinner turns into a few extra lunch servings, packed for school in an insulated food jar.
  • Thom’s Meat and Potatoes: I cook large batches of meat or sausages, and slice before freezing, placing waxed paper between slices as needed. Each Sunday I remove a few servings and place in a container in the fridge. He has this with rice or potatoes and microwaves everything at lunchtime. Fresh vegetables are always available – carrot/celery/pepper/radish sticks or a salad.
  • My Lunch Salads: I prep salads 3 days at a time, on Sundays and Wednesdays. My salads are always different and might contain any vegetables I have available, plus beans or roasted tofu, nuts or seeds or avocado, berries or other fresh or dried fruit, and potato or grains. I put them in plastic containers ready to grab from the fridge.

(I know, 3 different lunches isn’t really simple.  But it keeps everyone happy.)

Vegetable prep: We eat a lot of vegetables, and they require work before going into any recipe. When I have about 30 minutes of time, such as on weekights after an easy dinner, I’ll work on veggies for the next night’s dinner or for our lunches. Fresh vegetables last longer when cooked, so I prefer to cook all the vegetables I buy within a couple of days and then use them throughout the week. For stir fry, I chop and freeze mushrooms and peppers, and other veggies I cut fresh.

Cook vegetables for many uses: I batch-cook my various vegetables individually, without seasoning, to use in different dishes. For instance, fresh zucchini or mushrooms can be roasted or sauteed and then stored in the fridge or freezer. Once cooked, they can be used on sandwiches, in salads, in chili, in omelets or frittatas, etc. I season the final dish and the vegetables just need to be added with enough time to heat through.

Buy frozen fruits and vegetables: Frozen berries are perfect for smoothies or yogurt parfaits. Frozen vegetables have no waste and no prep time.

Bread baking shortcuts: I bake all of our bread, using a few different methods that I’ll detail in a future post.

Please share your food shortcuts!  I am always excited about maximizing my kitchen efficiency.

Sharing Gardens and Lunch, and Broccoli-Wild Rice Salad

I’ve been gardening with friends weekly or as our schedules allow this summer.  We rotate houses, meet in the cool morning, and break for homemade lunch – not the responsibility of the host, who already has to plan gardening and do the lunch dishes.  There are 3 of us, spanning the generations from ages 25 to 65, and every week we are amazed by what we accomplish in just two hours – and how much fun we have talking,  working together, and sharing plants.  The buckthorn that I had been avoiding for two seasons was vanquished in one morning.  Another week, we made grapevine wreaths to prevent the vines from strangling my tomato plants.

I don’t know what we will be doing in the garden tomorrow, but I do know the menu.  I love colorful main course salads and this is one of my favorite combinations.  We’ll have rosemary rye bread and watermelon on the side.

I’m also bringing one of my favorite plants for their gardens: Opuntia fragilis, the aptly named brittle prickly pear, which would just as soon stick to your hand as stay in the ground.  Its amazing flowers and the novelty of seeing a cactus outside in Minnesota are well worth the occasional thorn.

Ibroccoli wildrice salad

Broccoli-Wild Rice Salad with Orange Garlic Dressing

Combine in a large bowl:
3 c finely chopped broccoli florets/stems
2 c cooked wild rice
1 1/2 c halved red grapes
1 c chopped toasted cashews
1 large carrot, peeled and shredded

Combine in a small bowl and then mix into salad:
2 T orange juice concentrate
2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, very finely minced
salt and pepper to taste

If desired, serve over lettuce leaves to eat as a wrap.

Fresh Summer Eats: Broccoli Pesto Pasta

Winter in the north brings broccoli fatigue.  Supermarkets present an array of hardy cabbage-family plants including broccoli, green and red cabbages, and kale, beside wilted imported heat-loving vegetables that are clearly shocked by the frigid climate.  I quickly pass by the broccoli each spring when my garden begins producing asparagus and various fresh greens.

But now, even our mid-April blizzard is a fuzzy memory.  By midsummer, winter is forgotten in the joys of long sunlight hours, warm days at the lakes, and the amazing vitality of the landscape.  The farmers markets present fresh, tender, local broccoli and fragrant, spicy basil.

Broccoli Pesto Pasta can be ready 30 minutes after picking the basil.  It’s a fast and delicious summer meal that is also refrigerator-friendly for advance preparation, and travels well for picnics and lunches.  The broccoli fades into the background behind the strong basil and garlic flavors, but keeps the pesto a beautiful green even after time in the refrigerator.

I use Bon Appetit’s recipe and add a clove of garlic and a few walnuts or almonds. The  broccoli adds a lot of bulk and I find that this is enough for a pound of pasta, or a half pound of pasta and steamed vegetables.

Quick dinners and leftovers for future meals leave us more time to feel like we’re on vacation.  What are your favorite quick, tasty meals?