Great summer weeknight and weekend dinners for hot days

Episode 11: When you can't go to the ocean but you can still pretend

August 17 - 23

We're in full-on summer right now. I'll admit, we have an air conditioner we wheel into our window in the living room during the day because otherwise I just can't think straight. Deluxe life I know. As a I kid my family didn't have air conditioning and I can remember many humid summer days and nights laying like a pancake in front of the fans while curled around an ice pack to cool off a little.

As much as I'm absolutely loving a life with air conditioning right now, I'm still craving some of the flavors from my childhood during these crazy hot and humid days. The salmon and radicchio salad transported me to the rocky shores of Rockport, MA where one of my good friends' family has a house right on the ocean. I remember that house's feel, full of salty humid ocean air with the smell of lobster boiling over. The sunsets there were some of the most magical ones I can remember. So although this summer, there's no chance to make it out there, I can use this dinner to transport me a little. It's a really spectacular salad regardless of having these memories tied to its flavors and I'd encourage you to give it a try.

The potato and beef tacos are also a new addition to this week and they couldn't be a more spectacular meal. Where the salmon salad is a wonderful and quick weeknight dinner, the tacos are an incredibly satisfying and multi-faceted weekend option. One thing I notice really strongly when I go back to the USA is how pronounced the flavors of food are. When I go out to eat in Berlin, of course there are incredible restaurants, but in general the food tends to cater to more neutral flavors that Germans gravitate to. Where American interpretations of immigrant foods lean heavily into fat, salt, and sugar, German interpretations lean into a more mellow flavor compared to the original. Oftentimes José and I will wonder what we'd like to have for takeout when we're craving deeply flavored food, but ultimately, a dish like these tacos ends up leaving us significantly more satisfied than when we order takeout. If you have an incredible Mexican restaurant nearby, by all means, please order from them. But if you don't, this recipe will transport you.

When you want something delicious but can't bear the idea of cooking

Fresh tomato summer salad


This week has had me deeply craving a cabin in the woods, or an escape to a lake my family would visit in New Hampshire during the summers when I was little. Memories of swimming to turtle rock, making paper out of things we found in the forrest, and baking hot pink cupcakes flash before me and I admit that my heart aches a little for summers like those.

But as memories evolve, I also recalled this galavant one of my close friends and I had through Italy many years back. On one of the afternoons between rushing from one place to another, with nearly no money left in our wallets, we stumbled on this little café and ordered the tomato soup (it was likely the cheapest thing on the menu). What came out was this rich tomato-y stew with a bread base and a pitcher of this incredibly spicy olive oil we were supposed to drizzle on top. The soup was studded with these big chunks of basil and honestly, even to this day we talk about how spectacular that soup was. This was also the first time in my life that I had tried olive oil that felt tannic and almost spicy and it changed the breadth of what olive oil meant to me.

At the start of my current vacation, I picked up a very fancy, and necessarily spicy, olive oil. With this ingredient on hand, I figured why not find a way to fold it into a fresh summer salad on such a hot and sunny day. I've landed on something between a classic Tuscan panzanella and a caprese salad. If you have super fancy tomatoes, this is the time to use them. If you simply have good summer red tomatoes, this will be super tasty as well (it's what I had).

This recipe started from Kenji's recipe on Serious Eats for a classic Panzanella salad, but as most things, evolved a bit.

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A boldly flavored yet refreshing summer dinner

Vietnamese summer rolls (gỏi cuốn) with spicy peanut sauce


These are one of my favorite summer go-tos. They require nearly no cooking and the ingredients can be prepped ahead of time and put covered in the fridge. I can’t recall when I first had these rolls, but when I was little, my mom’s office was located in Boston’s Chinatown.

On the rare occasion like take-your-daughter-to-work-day, we’d go to this wonderful Vietnamese restaurant and have lunch there. The flavors of these rolls remind me of skipping school and spending time with my mother.

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Summer vacation memories with a tender heart

Artichokes with fresh garlic butter


This dinner is admittedly for a very light summer dinner. If you need a little more heft, I'd recommend to serve it alongside a caprese salad perhaps.

This dish reminds me of spending time with my mother during the summer months. I remember the house smelling like artichoke water as we waited for what felt like an eternity for them to be ready. My mom, someone who is mindful of nutrition, would serve it much more lightly than this dinner, but I figure if I'm only going to eat fresh artichokes so infrequently, I might as well indulge a little.

This summer is a bit different than most in that there are no beach getaways. But if you're able to find a spot with some fresh air and a thick breeze, these somehow taste even better with the wind on your face.

The butter mixture really makes this dish shine. I use a cultured Irish-style salted butter which adds a really nice complexity of flavor to the dish. I also love to make this when we have those enormous fresh garlic bulbs in the middle of summer. If you don't have fresh garlic, by all means use normal dried garlic. But if you have garlic scapes, this is a wonderful application for them too.

I love saving the heart for last and simply using a spoon to gently pry the choke from it. It's designed to save the best bite for last!

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Super satisfying salad for a hot day

Salmon cakes with shredded radicchio salad


This started off as a salmon burger from Serious Eats, but as the day progressed and it was so hot outside, all I wanted was a salad, so we landed on this. In the original recipe, the slaw used celery root. Given that there was a bit of a Japanese flavor profile with the wasabi, I decided to lean into that direction a little more aggressively and replaced the celery root with daikon for a bit of a cooler veggie.

The bitterness of the salad plays really well with the sweetness and fattiness of the salmon. With a sharp knife and a mandoline, this comes together pretty quickly for a great weeknight dinner. Feel free to make the salmon mixture in a tupperware the morning of and form into patties and cook right at dinnertime.

There's something about this dish that reminds me of summers by the ocean in Rockport. Maybe it's a combination of a seafood option with a little breading (although there's no deep frying in sight here). Or maybe it's the mayo-based dressing with the cornichons which reminds me a bit of tartar sauce. Either way, this is a much lighter take on a lobster-shack dinner option. And if I'm honest, one I could easily eat on rotation and feel fueled by.

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A comforting tray bake

Enchiladas rojas with shredded chicken


Enchiladas are actually quite simple to make. It translates to something doused in chile sauce. Oftentimes to make the tortilla pliable and to bring out the flavor of the chile sauce, the tortillas are fried. This version is a bit lighter on the oil front, but still super tasty.

The more I dig into weeknight dinner recipes, the more I notice that these kinds of simplifications or substitutions. They seem to happen for a few reasons. One is obviously when a recipe is brought into another country via migration, substitutions happen for the sake of approximation (or sometimes it even happens that you like it more than the original).

With this recipe, you can see this being applied with the oven-roasted shishito peppers which recall the blistered jalapeños often served with meals in a Mexican cuisine. We simply can't find jalapeños here, but shishito peppers seems to be a staple, and their bitterness is really tasty.

Another reason these substitutions happen is because of busy people finding a way to still eat the foods they love, but in a way that fits their lifestyle. For us that's twofold - we're not big friers. Honestly yes, it's a great way to reduce the fat, and therefore the heaviness of the dish, but more-so, I'm just scared of frying and I always make a huge mess. I don't need that kind of stress in my life right now so these get baked off and that's it.

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Tacos de canasta inspire a lavish weekend dinner

Potato and ground beef tacos with pinto beans


These tacos were José's homemade take on tacos de canasta. Typically these tacos are made with mashed potatoes as the filling. They're doused in hot oil and chile sauce and covered to steam in it.

This version is much lower in fat than the typical option. What's nice is it's a great option for vegan or vegetarians in your family. You can also make a version which includes ground beef, or a mixture of mashed potatoes and ground beef.

Admittedly, I'd really recommend having the pinto beans made earlier in the week and simply stored in an airtight glass jar in the fridge or freezer. This simplifies a lot of weeknight cooking while still having super flavorful dinners.

This salsa is quite spicy. You can make it sweeter by increasing the amount of tomato vs. chile. Or you can simply omit it if you're spice-averse.

One ingredient that might raise an eyebrow is the inclusion of Maggi seasoning. The story behind its inclusion is one I love, but admittedly it is absolutely a highly processed food. What I found hilarious was that one of our neighbors moved away and left us all kinds of things. One of them was this half-used bottle of Maggi seasoning. I admittedly scoffed at it and nearly threw it out, but José was curious to try it and added it to tacos one day. His face lit up as he realized that the Maggi seasoning is what gave tacos the taste of home back in Mexico. So although I'm not about to include a ton of highly processed food into most of my daily eating, I like keeping it in this recipe. What it does ultimately is add umami and saltiness, which soy sauce can absolutely do if you don't have Maggi seasoning on hand.

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Mung bean sprouts are little emeralds in this dish.

Carrot and sprouted mung bean warm salad


This recipe is based on Ottolenghi's salad of mung beans and carrots. I recently found this mung bean sprouting kit I had purchased years ago. It seemed like it was more than time to sprout the beans. Surprisingly with the heat we're having, they were sprouted in a day.

I couldn't believe how quickly they grew. I didn't have enough of my sprouts to serve two people, so I picked up some more mature sprouts from the supermarket. It was nice to have the mixture.

I wanted to increase the protein a bit to balance out the meal, so I added in roasted pumpkin seeds and topped off the salad with a little pumpkin seed oil. I had never really seen this back in the USA, but it's very popular here in Germany. Fun tip, pumpkin seed oil is delicious over vanilla ice cream with a few flakes of salt.

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