Summer's bounty is so vibrant and delicious on its own, it's easy and enjoyable to forgo cooking by making the season's produce the star of a dish. For a meal as satisfying as one that you've spent all day cooking, focus on smart shopping and artful assembly. Here's the formula to commit to memory: Select at least one variety of ripe raw fruit or vegetable, a prepared protein, a starch and seasonings, then combine them into a big salad, a generously topped toast, a hearty dip or an abundant snack tray.
By keeping just one or two ingredients from each of the categories below on hand, you have what you need to throw together a complete no-cook meal in minutes. You ultimately want to combine contrasting textures, such as soft tofu with thinly sliced snap peas, so be sure to choose a mix of crunchy, creamy and juicy basics. On top of standard pantry seasonings, also pick up preflavored options for an instant boost, such as herbed goat cheese.
* Raw fruits and vegetables: Melons, berries, citrus and avocado; crunchy vegetables such as cucumbers, snap peas and radishes; leafy greens such as bok choy, kale and soft herbs; and other summer staples such as corn, peppers and zucchini.
* Prepared proteins: Cooked or cured meat such as rotisserie chicken, prosciutto and jerky; canned tuna or salmon; smoked salmon or trout; canned beans; hummus; tofu; nuts, seeds and butters; soft or hard dairy products such as yogurt, ricotta and creme fraiche or Parmesan, manchego and cheddar.
* Starches: Bread, chips, crackers, rice cakes, pretzels, corn nuts and other snacks that make you smile.
* Seasonings: Oil, vinegar, salt and pepper are essential, but consider ground spices and spice mixes (everything-bagel seasoning, za'atar); savory items such as pickles, olives and capers; sauces such as mustard, hot sauce, chile oil, fish sauce and mayonnaise.
PUTTING THEM TOGETHER
Arrange your ingredients into one of the formats below, following the no-recipe recipes or creating your own. Cold food and raw produce require plenty of salt to bring out their flavor, so remember to taste and adjust seasonings before serving.
* Big Salads: Include a variety of fats, starches and proteins for heft. The dressing can be as simple as oil and vinegar or as elaborate as creamy blue cheese.
* Macerate shallots and nectarines in lemon juice, then toss with spinach, shredded chicken and pita chips. Eat with buttermilk-goat cheese dressing. (See recipe.)
* Combine cooked lentils, smashed green raw beans, sliced apricots, fresh mint leaves and candied pecans with a blue cheese dressing. Top with crushed rosemary crackers.
* Mix up thinly sliced raw shishito peppers and scallions with canned tuna and canned white beans. Dress with lemon juice and zest and toasted sesame oil. Top with nori rice crackers.
* Topped Toasts: Pile toppings onto bread, using something creamy such as ricotta or hummus to help loose ingredients stick to the toast. Or fold, roll or sandwich toppings in a tortilla, pita, lavash or flatbread.
* Mix fresh corn kernels with chopped cantaloupe, cilantro, salami and almonds. Spoon onto split baguettes spread with ricotta. (See recipe.)
* Layer avocado, sprouts, hummus, sliced feta and pickled jalapeños between potato buns.
* Spread mayonnaise on a pumpernickel bagel, then top with canned sardines, thinly sliced bok choy, grated Parmesan and toasted sesame seeds.
* Hearty Dips: Make a protein-rich dip by using smashed beans, silken tofu, nut butter, or smoked fish or meat.
* Serve smoked salmon dip with cucumbers, tomatoes, bagel chips and pickled vegetables. (See recipe.)
* Stir together fresh corn, ricotta and 'nduja. Use radishes and multigrain crackers to dip.
* Make seven-layer dip using drained canned black beans, then serve with tortillas and spicy chips.
* Snack Trays: Artfully arrange ingredients on a baking sheet or platter and, look, you made dinner.
* Assemble a main-course antipasti platter with celery, avocado, cured meats, mozzarella, focaccia, pickled peppers and mustard.
* Dress shaved raw beets with vinegar and serve alongside grapes, smoked salmon, pastrami, cheddar, pretzel chips and sauerkraut.
* Toss white beans with harissa and set out with tomatoes, watermelon, mint, almonds, goat cheese and olive bread.
Now that the question of dinner is answered, what will you do with your free time? Soak up the setting sun? Chase down the ice cream truck? Think about what you're not cooking for dinner tomorrow?
Chicken Salad With Nectarines and Goat Cheese
What if, instead of my usual hot-roasting method, I wrapped a whole fish tightly in parchment and put it in a slow oven? It was a technique I had never seen in a cookbook, and when I described it to Eric Ripert, the chef and an owner of Le Bernardin, he said it was new to him. The experiment worked beautifully. A week later, to serve with Portuguese white wines, I had the opportunity for an encore. This time it was a 2-pound porgy, and again, after exactly an hour, the bone lifted easily from the perfectly cooked, moist and silken flesh. Lemon, ginger, mustard and herbs brought it into harmony with the wines.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Total time: 15 minutes
1 1/2 to 2 pounds ripe but firm nectarines, pitted and sliced (4 to 6)
1 large shallot, thinly sliced
6 tablespoons lemon juice, plus more to taste (from 2 lemons)
Kosher salt and black pepper
1 cup buttermilk, plus more as needed
8 ounces goat cheese, preferably herbed, at room temperature
1 tablespoon lemon zest
3 to 4 cups shredded cooked chicken (from about 1 rotisserie chicken)
1 to 2 cups lightly crushed pita chips
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more to taste
8 to 10 ounces salad greens, such as mature spinach, arugula or watercress
In a large bowl, stir together the nectarines, shallot and lemon juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper. In a medium bowl, mash together the buttermilk, goat cheese and lemon zest. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and thin with more buttermilk until it's the consistency of a dip. (Both mixtures can be made up to an hour ahead and refrigerated. Bring to room temperature before eating.)
When you're ready to eat, add the chicken, pita chips and olive oil to the nectarines, and stir to combine. Add the greens, season them with salt and pepper, and stir once more. Taste and adjust salt, pepper, lemon juice and oil until flavors are bright and punchy.
Spread the goat cheese cream on plates, then top with the salad (or dot the salad with the goat cheese cream). Serve immediately.
Everything-Bagel Smoked Salmon Dip
Reminiscent of whitefish salad, smoked trout spread and everything bagels with lox, this creamy dip combines hot-smoked fish, yogurt, everything bagel seasoning, fresh dill and lemon. It can be eaten with crisp and fresh accompaniments, such as bagel chips, cucumbers and tomatoes. Or enjoy it in a sandwich or as a salad scooped onto a bed of greens. Feel free to add capers, horseradish, chopped celery or red onion or anything you like in your tuna salad or on your bagel, but taste before adding: The fish and everything bagel seasoning provide plenty of flavor on their own.
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 5 minutes
1 1/2 cups full-fat plain Greek yogurt (12 ounces)
8 ounces hot-smoked trout or salmon fillets, skin and bones removed, fish flaked into small pieces (see tip)
1/4 cup thinly sliced dill fronds and stems, plus more for serving
2 teaspoons lemon zest (from 1 large lemon)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons everything-bagel seasoning (store-bought or homemade), plus more for serving
Raw or pickled vegetables, such as cucumbers, radishes and tomatoes; chips or crackers; gigante beans or hard-boiled eggs, for serving
In a medium bowl, stir together the yogurt, trout, dill, lemon zest and juice and everything-bagel seasoning. Season with black pepper. (The fish and bagel seasoning are both salty, so you likely won't need additional salt.)
Spoon into a serving bowl, and top with more everything-bagel seasoning, black pepper and dill. Eat with any mix of dippers. (It keeps in the fridge for up to 4 days, but season again with lemon, salt and pepper before eating.)
Tips: Hot-smoked fish, also labeled smoke-roasted, is the fully-cooked, firm, vacuum-packed fish found near the cold-smoked salmon. If using hot-smoked mackerel, use 4 ounces.
Ricotta Toasts With Melon, Corn and Salami
Fresh cantaloupe and corn star in these meal-worthy toasts. They are mixed with spicy salami to complement their sweetness. You can use any cured meat with a kick, such as black pepper salami, cubed Spanish chorizo or torn soppressata. Whole-milk ricotta, made extra creamy with "milk" scraped from the corn cobs, is spread on crusty bread, then topped with the salad of melon, corn, salami, plus almonds and cilantro. Play with the balance of sweet, spicy, juicy and crunchy by adding fresh chile, thinly sliced cucumbers or snap peas or swapping the melon for stone fruit.
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 15 minutes
2 ears of corn, kernels removed, cobs reserved
1 cup whole-milk ricotta (8 ounces)
Kosher salt and black pepper
1 cup chopped cantaloupe
1/2 cup chopped spicy or black pepper salami (about 2 1/2 ounces; if using pre-sliced salami, rip into smaller pieces)
1/2 cup cilantro leaves and stems, finely chopped
6 tablespoons roasted, salted almonds or Marcona almonds, coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons Sherry vinegar, plus more as needed
1 baguette or another sturdy bread, like ciabatta
Use the blunt edge of a knife to scrape any corn milk off the cobs into a medium bowl. Add the ricotta to the corn milk, season with salt and pepper, and set aside.
In a large bowl, stir together the corn kernels, cantaloupe, salami, cilantro, almonds and vinegar. Season generously with salt and pepper, then taste and adjust salt, pepper and vinegar until the flavors pop. (The salad will keep covered and refrigerated for up to 5 hours. Add the cilantro and almonds just before serving.)
When ready to eat, cut or rip the baguette into 4 pieces crosswise, then cut or rip in half lengthwise through the middle (as if you're making a sandwich). Toast if you'd like. Spoon the ricotta onto the cut sides of the baguette, then top with the salad.