Diner: Cool Cuisine

How to eat when you can't stand the heat

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Hair, lawn and appetite: the first three things to wilt during a heat wave. The first two are beyond the scope of a food article, but what about the appetite? We have to eat, even after the joy of ice cubes, Popsicles and watermelon melts away.

First off, you might try taking your cue from the tropical cui-sines of the world, which provide sustenance for their people in much worse weather than this (it's not the heat, it's the humidity!). Much of the food in hot countries includes large quantities of chilies and other zesty seasonings. Pungent flavorings make you sweat, part of the body's natural cooling system. But they also wake you out of your heat-induced stupor, says chef and author Louise Fiszer. "During the summer your palate is looking for something interesting," she explains. "The appetite dies down in heat, so you need a little something to wake it up."

Accordingly, Fiszer makes lavish use of fresh herbs in the summer, basil and mint being favorites that quickly transcend garnish and become primary ingredients.

The chapter on cold soups in her Good Day for Soup (which she co-wrote with Jeannette Ferrary in 1996) is full of herbs: Dilled cucumber soup with bay shrimp. Cool minted pea soup. Cream of mixed lettuces, chive and chervil. Chilled pear and parsley. Cold plum and watercress.

Herbs are also a key component in what makes Southeast Asian food a cooling dinner option, says chef and author Joyce Jue. Mint and cilantro are ubiquitous in tropical Asian cuisines, sparked by tartness from citrus or vinegar in dressings or sauces, and punctuated, of course, with chilies. Even the garnishes of Asian salads contribute to waking up the mouth, says Jue. "I love the crispy fried garlic and shallot. They give a real burst of flavor."

Of course, the salads Jue specializes in aren't the typical cool, crisp, leafy California salads. Instead, Asian salads are a savory mixture of minced meats, poultry and fish, tossed with lots of herbs and often some fruits and vegetables. "Asians don't treat these salads as a meal, but with a little extra protein and larger servings, they work well in a Western diet," Jue says.

Asian salads illustrate several cool-kitchen principles. They make frequent use of noodles such as rice vermicelli, which need only be rehydrated in hot water. One of Jue's favorite noodle-based salads combines vermicelli with chicken, shrimp and crumbled sections of pomelo or grapefruit.

There is also a strong tradition in some Southeast Asian countries of fresh salad platters, assembled right at the table. Jue mentions the Vietnamese salad platter, dai rau song, which usually contains lettuce, green fresh herbs, cucumber and carrot strips, and shredded scallions, wrapped in rice crepes and dipped into a sauce based on peanuts, chili and/or fish sauce.

If you're dealing with raw salads like this, you're in luck. But if you must cook, you can do it in the cooler hours, and then just assemble the meal when you're ready, says Fiszer. And for god's sake, take the easy way out wherever you can.

"Today there's almost nothing you can't get already prepared," Fiszer says. "From the smallest mom-and-pop store to the biggest luxury market, you can find the food anywhere. All you do is add your touches to it."

Fiszer points out one of her favorite summer concoctions — a tortilla wrap with chicken Caesar salad — as a perfect example of this. The chicken is already grilled and cut into strips (you can find this in the section where packaged hot dogs are, but don't let that turn you off). You simply toss the chicken together with romaine lettuce and Caesar salad dressing, spread the tortilla with more dressing, and roll up. "I would much prefer to grill my own chicken, but if you don't have the time and you don't want to heat up the kitchen, this is the way to go."

Another salad, which Fiszer recently made for a class, contained prawns, feta cheese, olives, roasted red pepper, penne and spinach, and the only thing she had to cook was the pasta. Everything else was precooked, precut, precrumbled. Total prep time? Fifteen minutes.

Summer is not the time, in other words, to worry about home cooking, because home cooking is hot work. Use your deli for precooked ingredients such as whole roast chicken or thick-cut roast beef. Don't forget such cooling vegetarian products as tofu (even that comes in convenience packages, already marinated and/or baked). And remember canned foods such as beans, well-rinsed and drained.

Fiszer advocates learning several techniques for salad dressing. "A good salad relies on the strength of the dressing," she says firmly. But even that can be store-bought and home-improved, with very little effort.

"I would never tell you to buy dressing. It's so easy to make, and it tastes better, too," Fiszer says. "But if you had to, you could always buy dressing and add your own lemon juice, herbs, balsamic vinegar."

And of course, there's always the last resort. If all this is completely beyond you, do what Jue does: "I make my husband barbecue." ©

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