Recently, my partner’s niece, who is learning to cook, asked me for advice. She’d been rating her attempts at dinner, and her slow cooker pot roast had scored lowest of all. What had she done wrong? After suggesting that she start her roast by browning the meat to add caramelization and depth of flavor, I added that maybe she should consult the calendar. A pot roast is never going to taste good in July. Re-visit it, and re-evaluate, I advised, on a raw, bone-chilling November day.

At least Molly had the good sense not to turn on the oven. And lucky for you and me, the world has considerately arranged things so that just when it is wretchedly hot out and the last thing you want to do is cook, Maine delivers a cornucopia of beautiful fruit and vegetables direct to your kitchen. At the peak of the harvest, now through September, these melons, tomatoes, zucchini, corn, peppers and much more require scant hands-on work and little to no application of heat to turn into dinner.

So what’s for dinner when the thermometer soars to the high 80s or low 90s and sticks there, as it has in Maine most of this summer? How about a tomato sandwich? On the rare late summer days that even I, a food writer, don’t want to spend time in the kitchen, there is always that. Actually, today (92 degrees as I write this, 42 percent humidity, no AC), it’s for lunch, with corn on the cob on the side. Tomatoes in Maine stick around for two months at best. You could do worse than eat a tomato sandwich every day in August.

Also, try this: Slice a cantaloupe. Wrap it in prosciutto. Feeling fancy? Drizzle it lightly with balsamic vinegar. Congratulate yourself for your Italian ease and sophistication.

For a fast, healthful, low-heat meal, you can’t beat bulgur (cracked wheat), which I buy from the Middle Eastern markets on Forest Avenue in Portland. (Do check the sell-by date. Like all grains, it can go rancid quickly, and some of those stores have been quite hot this summer with bags of bulgur sitting on shelves. For the same reason, store the bulgur in the refrigerator or freezer.) To make a grain salad, I add whatever it is I have around to cooked no. 2, or medium, bulgur. “Cooking” may be an overstatement; preparing bulgar is mostly a matter of letting it absorb boiling water.

For this recipe and all similarly simple, summer-vegetable-heavy recipes, what you have around must be very good or your meal won’t be. In winter, you’ve got some leeway: a sauce, a transformative cooking process, cheesy goeyness, heat. All these things can disguise, to some extent, imperfect ingredients. In summer, if you want a good salad, you need good olive oil, good tomatoes, good fresh corn, no ifs, ands or buts (and certainly no out-of-season asparagus).

I have added all those things to bulgur salads when dinnertime approaches, and I am sweaty and worn down by the heat and failed to plan ahead. Also mint, parsley, fava beans, olives, chopped cucumbers, chickpeas, scallions, roasted bell peppers, radishes, green beans, feta cheese and chopped hard-boiled eggs. The sky, or really the contents of your refrigerator and pantry, is the limit. Usually, I dress the salad simply, with olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper. Lately, I have been stealing an idea from Evo in Portland and adding sumac and za’atar to the dressing, as well. You can toss everything together and call it grain salad. If you’re feeling more ambitious, arrange the individually dressed vegetables and other ingredients into artistic piles atop the bulgur in individual bowls; call these grain bowls and pat yourself on the back for being right on trend.

The recipes that accompany this story are mostly for vegetables and salads. That’s how I eat in hot weather. But don’t let me dictate your dinner. If your family requires a protein at every meal, by all means put something simple on the grill to complement the salads – flank steak, pork tenderloin, tofu, halibut. When even grilling feels too punishing on these long, sweltering days, pick up a rotisserie chicken. No judgment.

A sole dessert lurks among the vegetables. Malabi, the signature dessert – the only dessert – ever served at Drifters Wife in Portland, which was felled by the pandemic. I have been thinking about that dessert, craving it, admiring it ever since Drifters Wife closed one month ago. Middle Eastern malabi is a cousin to panna cotta. It tastes simple, elegant, effortless and pure, just how I like my sweltering-summer’s-day desserts. Also, it has just four ingredients (not counting water), very simple directions, and requires just a few minutes on the stove. I called Drifters Wife chef Ben Jackson to ask about it.

Chef Ben Jackson says organic corn starch and raw milk make a big difference when making malabi.

It turns out, it’s not quite as simple as I thought, which shouldn’t have surprised me given the caliber of cooking at Drifters Wife. Jackson, who is a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award this year, used rose syrup he made himself from the petals of rosa rugosa, raw milk,  high-quality cornstarch and precise timing. He can talk eloquently – I’m not kidding – about the difference between commodity and organic cornstarch.

“I made it every day for almost five years. The reason it came into being was because it was something very easy for me to do, as one human cooking for 60 people a night. It was kind of out of necessity for me,” he said. “It was just a beautiful, easy dessert to make. When I was trying to figure out one dessert for Drifters Wife, I was digging through cookbooks, I found it in ‘Jerusalem’ (by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi). I thought, ‘This is absolutely perfect for Maine.’ ”

A gutsy menu decision, I always thought, but didn’t customers complain when faced with just one (probably unfamiliar and unpronounceable) dessert option, and it wasn’t even chocolate? Jackson giggled. “Oh yeah, so much. Drifters Wife was really special, very stripped down. It’s hard to think about it now. I cooked the food I wanted to eat every single day. And that dessert I could eat every day for the rest of my life.”

A few easy, seasonal salads that can be made quickly and should be eaten quickly, too — mostly, these dishes don’t improve by sitting around. No oven and barely the stove-top. A light, delicious pudding from a region of the world far hotter than here, refracted through a Maine culinary lens. That’s what’s for dinner in August at my house. With apologies to George Gershwin, it’s summertime and the cookin’ is easy.

Cucumber Salad with Yogurt, Golden Raisins, Walnuts & Mint 

The recipe is from Janet Fletcher’s “Yogurt: Sweet and Savory Recipes for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner.” Use the herb measurements as guidelines; when I make it, I add herbs in far more generous measure than Fletcher specifies and often add chives and basil, as well, since they grow in my garden. The salad comes together in minutes, but you do need to plump the raisins ahead, so plan accordingly.

Serves 4-6

¼ cup golden raisins
2 cups plain whole yogurt
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
1 to 2 cloves garlic, grated or finely minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill, plus more for garnish
1 teaspoon finely minced fresh mint
Kosher or sea salt
2 cups ½-inch diced cucumber
1/3 cup chopped toasted walnuts

Put the raisins in a small bowl, add barely enough water to cover, and let plump for at least 1 hour. Drain.

In a large bowl, whisk together the yogurts, garlic, dill, mint and salt to taste. Add the raisins, cucumbers and walnuts. Stir well, and then taste and adjust the seasoning.

Serve immediately, garnished with more chopped dill, or cover and refrigerate for up to 1 hour. If you want to hold the salad longer, leave the walnuts out initially and add them just before serving to preserve their crunch.

Cherry Tomato Salad with Curry Leaves Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Cherry Tomato Salad with Curry Leaves

This recipe comes from “Vegetarian India: A Journey Through the Best of Indian Home Cooking” by Madhur Jaffrey. It requires stove time, but only a minute or so, so no heat-up-the-kitchen damage done. I’ve never seen a dish remotely like this in an Indian restaurant in the United States; it changed my understanding of Indian food. (Click this link to see our review of “Vegetarian India” and find the recipe for another wonderful summer dish, Jaffrey’s Fresh Peach Salad.) Buy fresh curry leaves at Masala Mahal on Route 1 in South Portland — though Jaffrey says they are optional, they add a lot to this dish.

Serves 4

10 oz. cherry or grape tomatoes, preferably in different colors and sizes, halved or quartered
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive or peanut oil
¼ teaspoon whole brown mustard seeds
1 dried hot red chili
7-8 fresh curry leaves or small basil leaves

Arrange the tomatoes, cut side up, in a single layer on a plate. You can leave spaces between them.

Shortly before serving them, dust the tomatoes lightly with salt and pepper.

Put the oil in a small frying pan and set over medium-high heat. When hot, put in the mustard seeds. As soon as they start to pop, a matter of seconds, add the red chili, stirring until it darkens. Quickly add the curry leaves, then lift up the pan and spoon the oil and spices over the tomatoes. Serve as soon as you can, leaving the red chili on top as a garnish, but warn people not to eat it. It will have already done its job by flavoring the oil.

Prepping Raw, Shaved Zucchini Salad. Fresh mint and basil leaves are scattered between the layers of thinly sliced zucchini. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Raw, Shaved Zucchini Salad

I ate something like this at a restaurant in New York City years ago and have been making it ever since. I’ve seen it on restaurant menus called Zucchini Carpaccio, and priced accordingly. Mainers like to disparage zucchini, which grow inexhaustibly in everybody’s gardens at this time of year. This simple salad proves their worth and is especially good with Romanesco zucchini if you can find it; you can recognize it by its deep ridges. Use a light hand when dressing the salad and use a mandolin to shave the zucchini if you’ve got one. I’ve given the proportions for two; scale up to serve as many as you like.

Serves 2-3

2 small to medium zucchini,  very thinly sliced or shaved
Drizzle of really good olive oil
Freshly squeezed lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Small handful fresh basil, julienned
Small handful fresh mint, julienned
Excellent Parmesan cheese, shaved with a carrot peeler
1 to 2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts

On a small platter, lay down a layer of zucchini. Drizzle lightly with the olive oil, then the lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper. Scatter the herbs over the zucchini. Lay down another layer of zucchini and repeat. Continue until you’ve used up the zucchini. Top the salad with the shaved cheese and pine nuts. Serve immediately.

Everything-But-the-Kitchen-Sink Bulgur Salad Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Everything-But-the-Kitchen-Sink Bulgur Salad

Serves 5-6

This recipe is infinitely variable. That’s the point. Use what you have and what you like, as long as it’s seasonal. Vary the proportions of grain and vegetables, too. It’s hot out; do not make a fuss.

1 cup medium (no. 2) bulgur
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more for seasoning
2 cups boiling water
2 plus tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
6 tablespoons good extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly grated pepper
1/2 teaspoon each sumac and za’atar, optional
Minced garlic, optional
Chopped allium of any sort: chives, scallions, pickled onions, shallots, garlic
2-3 cups of any seasonal vegetable you’ve got*
Random add-ins such as chopped hard-boiled egg, crumbled feta cheese or shaved goat gouda, halved olives, chickpeas
Random chopped fresh herbs such as basil, mint, cilantro

*For our photo shoot, my vegetables were string beans in two colors (blanch for 3-4 minutes, depending on the thickness), 1 grated carrot, corn from the cob (so fresh, I used it raw), a roasted green pepper, cherry tomatoes (in several colors to be visually pleasing, which will stimulate the appetite on a hot day).

Put the bulgur in a medium pot with the salt. Pour the water over the grain. Keep at a low boil for 3 minutes. Turn off the heat, cover the pan and let steep for 15 minutes. Fluff with a fork and cool.

While the bulgur is cooling, make the dressing. Combine the lemon juice, oil, salt and pepper to taste, and spices and garlic, if you are using them, in a jar. Shake well.

Transfer the cooled bulgur to a bowl. Add the onions, vegetables, and olives and chickpeas, if you are using them. Toss with the salad dressing; you may not need all of it. Add the optional chopped egg and cheese, as well as the herbs. Toss. Taste for seasoning and add more of whatever it needs. Let the salad sit at least 30 minutes for the flavors to develop.

Drifters Wife Malabi, a simple, light dessert with pan-roasted blueberries for a hot day (or, topped differently, for a cold day, too). Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Drifters Wife Malabi/Muhallabieh

Drifters Wife chef Ben Jackson’s version of malabi (it goes under many similar names, including muhallabieh) is based on that in Yotam Ottolenghi’s and Sami Tamimi’s in their cookbook “Jerusalem.” For the flavoring, “we collect rose petals from Rosa rugosa and steep them in simple syrup,” Jackson said. “But you could also use rose water.” If you use store-bought rose water, start with less and taste, as different brands vary in strength. At Drifters Wife, the toppings for the puddings changed seasonally. In the summer, Jackson liked to top it with blueberries pan-roasted in hot olive oil with a little fresh thyme and honey.

6 tablespoons organic cornstarch
2 cups raw milk
¾ cup water
6 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon of homemade beach rose syrup or store-bought rose water

Mix the cornstarch with 6 ½ tablespoons of the milk into a paste in a small bowl. Pour the remaining milk, the water and the sugar into a pan and slowly heat the mixture on the stove, whisking and letting the sugar dissolve. When steam begins to rise off the milk, 5 to 10 minutes, pour in the cornstarch mixture. Whisk until the mixture boils and thickens and its texture resembles that of thick custard. Off the heat, add the rose syrup, whisking to combine.

Divvy the hot milk pudding up among 6 ramekins or small bowls. Press plastic wrap or wax paper over the puddings to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate in order to set the pudding for at least 6 hours.

Serve topped with seasonal fruit, toasted pistachios, coconut, etc.

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