Here's what doesn't make sense: The season that gives us the biggest bang for our food bucks is the same one in which we attempt to flee the kitchen — all because of the heat? C'mon, people. Install a fan or become bakers and canners of the night. Learn how to wrangle a recipe by prepping in the cool of the morning or by placing a griddle on a gas grill for long simmers.
Because the cookbooks of summer will tempt you. They are handsome and charming and informative. They manage to offer blendings of flavors and cultures you might not have thought of on your own. I'd wager you'll be inspired to make more than three recipes from any one of them.
These are listed in order of preference within their categories.
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Home Made Summer by Yvette van Boven (Abrams; $35, 130 recipes). This collection of recipes lends a certain European sensibility to seasonal cooking, and it could be just the ticket for shaking up a standard rotation of grilled this-and-that with salads on the side. Look for carrot pie with apple and goat cheese; rolled up feta and garlic bread with radicchio and mint; and stuffed, marinated zucchini blossoms with lavender salt.
Fresh Food Nation: Simple, Seasonal Recipes From America's Farmers by Martha Holmberg (Taunton Press; $22.95, 125 recipes). No reason to keep hounding your produce provider. This is a comprehensive self-help guide for the farmers-market community-supported-agriculture-member set, with mini profiles of CSA farms nationwide.
A History of Food in 100 Recipes by William Sitwell (Little, Brown; $35, 100 recipes). What food lovers will be reading at the beach; the format delivers culture in fascinating, digestible chunks. The inclusion of Rice Krispies' Treats signals the absence of culinary snobbery.
Smoke & Pickles: Recipes and Stories From a New Southern Kitchen by Edward Lee (Artisan; $29.95, 130 recipes). The Louisville cheftestant we came to know as the Snarly One on Season 9 of Top Chef brings new ingredients and technique to the kitchen art that tends to scare off home cooks the most. His flavor combinations are compelling, and his tips read like a mentor's blessings.
Fresh Happy Tasty: An Adventure in 100 Recipes by Jane Coxwell; $35, 100 recipes). The adventure comes by way of the South African author's work as a private chef to the yachted rich and famous — most recently, for power couple Diane von Furstenberg and Barry Diller. Seafood's the largest chapter, naturally; recipes are written simply, with some techniques highlighted by process photos, such as cleaning squid.
Bakeless Sweets by Faith Durand (Stewart, Tabori & Chang; $29.95, 100 recipes). Those would be puddings, custards, mousses, individual jellies, icebox cakes and whipped-cream desserts. And I would be remiss not to mention the Salted Caramel Risotto. Many good variations on baked items, too, including brownies, Meyer lemon bars and crème brûlée.
The Animal Farm Buttermilk Cookbook: Recipes and Reflections From a Small Vermont Dairy by Diane St. Clair (Andrews McMeel; $27.99, 100 recipes). Recognize the author's name? She supplies butter and buttermilk to the likes of chefs Thomas Keller and Barbara Lynch. The book's small history lessons go down as smooth as a creamy, cold glass of the stuff in summertime. With this on the shelf, you'll never again wonder what to do with the rest of a bottle.
Gluten-Free Girl Every Day by Shauna James Ahern with Daniel Ahern (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $29.99, 120 recipes). Cooking and eating like this Seattle family proves there's joy in "living without," to refer to a regrettably named magazine. Nobody could work their way through this book and feel gustatorially deprived.
Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook by Joe Yonan (August, Ten Speed Press; $24.99, 80 recipes). In a follow-up to his 2011 Serve Yourself, The Washington Post's Food editor steers his singleton focus away from the animal kingdom. He walks the walk as a new vegetarian. The book offers strategies of math and examples via nicely drawn essays.
Cooking With Flowers: Sweet and Savory Recipes With Rose Petals, Lilacs, Lavender, and Other Edible Flowers by Miche Bacher (Quirk Books; $24.95, 100-plus recipes). They offer more than pretty petal power; flowers contain nutrients, health benefits and complex flavors. This compendium will persuade you to put nasturtiums in your corn and black bean salad and daylilies in your cheese biscuits.
Bake It Like You Mean It: Gorgeous Cakes From Inside Out by Gesine Bullock-Prado (Stewart, Tabori & Chang; $29.95, 70 recipes). Although these creations are some of the most stunningly visual we've seen, they seem possible to re-create and almost irresistible. If assembly steps look too steep to climb, keep in mind that you are concocting works of edible art. Be sure to visit the compilation of book errata on the publisher's Web site, which involves a larger-than-usual number of recipes.
Flour, Too: Indispensable Recipes for the Cafe's Most Loved Sweets & Savories by Joanne Chang (Chronicle; $35, 100 recipes). You don't have to visit either Massachusetts location of Flour Bakery + Cafe to appreciate the chef's hand. And you won't necessarily be baking your way through the book, either — the hot and sour soup, the winter paper salad (go ahead, make it in the summer) and the cantaloupe-mint seltzer being three savory recipe reasons why.
Saving the Season: A Cook's Guide to Home Canning, Pickling, and Preserving by Kevin West (Alfred A. Knopf; $35, 220 recipes). Pleasant surprises await, in the book's unusual recipes and in the author's pectinlike ability to find the right set for blending food lit, essays and smart seasonality.
Southern Living Little Jars, Big Flavors: Small-Batch Jams, Jellies, Pickles, and Preserves From the South's Most Trusted Kitchen (Oxmoor House; $21.95, 110-plus recipes). Bright and good for beginners, this book has solid recipes, thanks to the expertise of Southern cookbook author Virginia Willis. Check out the chapters on "putting-up parties"; they are downright neighborly.
Put 'Em Up! Fruit: A Preserving Guide & Cookbook by Sherri Brooks Vinton (Storey; $19.95, 160 recipes). Its use of enthusiastic punctuation gets heavy-handed somewhere between the chapters on cherries and cranberries, and the photography looks dated. But process shots are helpful, and the recipes span a range of sweet and savory.
Here's a no-fuss, slightly unusual preparation with a sauce that's pantry-friendly. The dish can be made dairy-free by replacing the heavy cream with cashew cream.
Pork chops with spinach-prosciutto sauce
4 bone-in pork chops (about an inch thick, 8 ounces each)
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons canola oil
5 thin slices prosciutto, rolled up and cut crosswise into thin slices
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh rosemary
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 cups chopped fresh baby spinach
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Set a large, ovenproof skillet, preferably cast-iron, over medium-high heat. Season pork chops all over with salt and pepper to taste. Place chops in skillet and sear them undisturbed for about 5 minutes, until they are browned on the bottom. Turn over chops, then transfer skillet to oven. Roast for about 5 minutes or until chops' internal temperature registers 140 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Transfer meat to a plate to rest while you make the sauce.
Return the same skillet to medium-high heat and add oil. Use your fingers to gently uncoil the strips of prosciutto; add them to skillet and cook for a few minutes, until they are crisped and some of their fat has been rendered, then use tongs to transfer them to a plate. Add onion and garlic to skillet; cook for about 5 minutes, until onion has softened, stirring occasionally and reducing heat as needed so garlic does not burn.
Stir in rosemary and cook for 1 minute, then pour in cream. Once it has heated through, toss in chopped spinach and cook just until it has wilted, then return the crisped prosciutto to the mix, tossing to incorporate. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as needed.
Divide chops among individual plates. Spoon sauce over each chop; serve warm. Makes four servings.
Nutrition per serving: 360 calories, 28 g. protein, 5 g. carbohydrates, 25 g. fat, 105 mg. cholesterol, 370 mg. sodium, 0 g. dietary fiber, 1 g. sugar
Adapted from Gluten-Free Girl Every Day by Shauna James Ahern with Daniel Ahern
This is a quick and versatile summer staple to pour over your favorite cooked and/or cooled grains, cooked beans or grilled fish. The sauce can be refrigerated for up to five days.
Tomato and leek sauce
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups thinly sliced cleaned leeks (white and light-green parts)
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 sprigs thyme
4 medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped, plus their juices
1⁄3 cup sauvignon blanc or other dry white wine
Maldon or other flaky sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Agave syrup (optional)
Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Once oil shimmers, add leeks, garlic and thyme. Stir to coat, and reduce heat to medium; cook for 8 to 10 minutes, until tender but not browned, stirring occasionally.
Add tomatoes plus their juices and wine, then season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook uncovered for about 30 minutes, adjusting heat as needed. The mixture will thicken and begin to look like a chunky sauce. Add agave syrup, if desired; stir and/or mash as needed.
Discard thyme sprigs. Taste, and adjust seasoning before serving or cooling and storing. Makes about 4 cups (4 to 6 servings)
Nutrition per serving (based on 6): 90 calories, 1 g. protein, 8 g. carbohydrates, 5 g. fat, 0 mg. cholesterol, 55 mg. sodium, 2 g. dietary fiber, 3 g. sugar.
Adapted from Fresh Happy Tasty: An Adventure in 100 Recipes by Jane Coxwell
Silky smooth and subtly flavored, this custard comes together surprisingly fast and easily. The recipe can be doubled. The custard is best made one day in advance so it can be thoroughly chilled.
Lemon and sour cream custard
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons cream cheese, at room temperature
1 large egg yolk
1 cup whole milk
1/4 cup sugar
Grated zest and juice of 1 large lemon
1/2 cup regular or low-fat sour cream
Whisk together cornstarch and salt in a medium bowl, making sure there are no clumps. Whisk in half the heavy cream to form a smooth slurry. Use your fingertips to check for/ eliminate any clumps.
Use a small whisk to beat cream cheese in a separate medium bowl until it is slightly whipped. Gradually whisk in the remaining cream, then pour in cornstarch slurry and egg yolk, whisking until well incorporated.
Stir together milk, sugar and lemon zest in a medium saucepan, then place over medium heat. Once bubbles begin to form at edges, stir slowly with a wooden spoon, scraping bottom to make sure a skin doesn't form there. Once surface of the milk mixture begins to quiver a bit on its own, turn off the heat.
Pour 1/2 cup heated milk mixture into the slurry mixture, whisking to incorporate, then slowly pour that tempered mixture back into saucepan while whisking; this should take a deliberate and measured 10 seconds to complete.
Return heat to medium and cook for 2 to 5 minutes. The thickened mixture will bubble and burp. Reduce heat to medium-low or low, and whisk until mixture reaches a puddinglike consistency. Remove from heat.
There probably will be some small lumps. Use a flexible spatula to press the pudding through a fine-mesh strainer into a shallow container (at least 2-cup capacity). Gently and thoroughly fold in sour cream. Place plastic wrap directly on the surface. Refrigerate for 1 hour, then stir in lemon juice. Cover again and refrigerate overnight before serving. Makes 2 cups (4 servings).
Nutrition per serving (using low-fat sour cream): 260 calories, 5 g. protein, 21 g. carbohydrates, 18 g. fat, 115 mg. cholesterol, 220 mg. sodium, 0 g. dietary fiber, 18 g. sugar.
Adapted from Bakeless Sweets: Pudding, Panna Cotta, Fluff, Icebox Cake & More No-Bake Desserts by Faith Durand