We’re already halfway through August, which means summer is quickly winding down. The kids are back in school, you’ve probably already used all your vacation days, and if you’re anything like me, seeing all the emerging autumn decorations popping up in stores is setting your overheated heart a-flutter.
But as much as I despise sweating my way through the dog days of summer in the south, there is one bright spot that I never take for granted, and that is the seasonal food and drink. There is no comparison when it comes to ripe, yummy garden goodness and refreshing, effervescent white wines that peak during the summer months. As we hurdle headfirst toward the gluttony of holiday season, I wanted to share some of my favorite dishes and wines that need to be enjoyed while they’re at the peak of flavor. When it comes to eating in the heat, the concept is rooted in simplicity- keep it light, keep it fresh and keep it as local as possible.
The first food that is synonymous with summer for me is tomatoes. When I was a kid I loved going in my grandparents’ backyard garden and picking as many ripe cherry tomatoes (or as we called them, “tommy toes”) as I could find, then sniffing my fingers as I popped them one by one into my mouth. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve always savored the scent of tomato stalks, and they always remind me of childhood summers when times were much simpler. My favorite way to enjoy this classic southern staple is serving it as an appetizer in a fresh caprese salad or bruschetta. With basil being in season as well, either of these dishes are sure to be a hit whether you’re feeding yourself or a crowd.
For caprese, cut some big, thick, luscious slices of a stripey heirloom tomato, layer it atop equally thick rounds of fresh mozzarella, scatter with whole basil leaves, then crack some black peppercorns and sea salt and top with a generous drizzle of quality olive oil and balsamic. There is hardly an easier and more delicious dish than this.
When I make bruschetta, instead of dicing red roma tomatoes, I like to use various colors and sizes of small tomatoes, whether they’re red cherry, yellow pear, etc. As long as they’re small snacking tomatoes around the same size, they’ll do just fine, just slice them in half lengthwise. Mince a couple cloves of garlic, chiffon a handful of fresh basil, sprinkle in some grated or shredded parmesan cheese, drizzled olive oil and balsamic and cracked pepper and sea salt to taste. Toss it all in a big bowl and let the flavors marry for a few hours…if you can wait that long. Don’t forget to serve with toasted sliced baguette or your favorite crackers.
My immediate recommendation for pairing wine with these dishes is to keep it Italian and reach for a crisp Pinot Grigio from that region. You’re going to want a delicate, fruity selection with enough acid to stand up to the tomatoes, and I always think it’s a safe bet to serve wines and foods together that originated from the same area, as they were created to complement one another. A grassy, citrusy sauvignon blanc would work well here too, but stay away from any super-oaky or buttery chardonnays.
In terms of main dishes, who doesn’t love a cool salad on a hot afternoon? Being located so close to South Carolina, you can’t go wrong with a peach salad this time of year. For lunch today I tossed together some tender baby spinach with crunchy romaine hearts, then topped it with big chunks of juicy, ripe peaches; I didn’t even remove the skins. I added thinly sliced cucumber and a bit of tomato, then crumbled goat cheese and crushed up walnuts. A light drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette and a side of 2 hard-boiled eggs made for a filling and satisfying mid-day meal. A beautiful Loire Valley sauvignon blanc would be the perfect match for this creation, due to its characteristic notes of stone fruit. Another option would be a semi-sweet Riesling from Germany; something sweet enough to compliment the fruit, but not so cloyingly syrupy it would overpower the dish.
Finally, it just wouldn’t be summer without seafood. While we are sadly in a bit of a landlocked state, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the fruits of the sea in your own home. Thanks to the marvels of modern science, you can now order fresh Alaskan seafood and have it delivered to your doorstep on dry ice the next day. Or go an even more local route and pickup something from Bayou Boys fish market in Johnson City. From what I hear, these guys are bringing the best of the gulf up to Tri-Cities on a weekly basis. A glass of Chablis would be so yummy with a creamy bowl of shrimp n grits! Or if you’re feeding a crowd, it doesn’t get any easier than a low country boil. Fill a steamer pot as big as you need with shrimp, sausages, crab legs, red potatoes, corn, onions, lemons and a ton of Old Bay and sling it to the masses on a newspaper covered picnic table. My secret ingredient is to add beer to my boil, something with a little structure so nothing light. I think a big viognier from California would have enough mouthfeel to stand up against the Cajun spices and sausages, but in this instance, I also would suggest a beer. There’s just something so laidback and summery about a nighttime boil and a couple of brews while someone picks a guitar.
I hope you all are as hungry now as I am, and will create your own seasonal culinary treats before they’re gone. Otherwise you’ll be kicking your own butt for the next 10 months!