Why I’m a Better Chef in the Summer (It’s Not Just the Produce)

published Jul 28, 2016
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If you’re like me and spend more time than you should browsing food blogs and recipe sites, you’ve probably noticed the plethora of seasonal posts out there. You know the ones I mean — the ones that breathlessly extoll the freshness, versatility, and intense flavor of the produce available in the markets right now: Sweet blueberries! Juicy tomatoes! Meaty eggplants!

As a food writer, I’ve written a countless number of such posts myself, and it’s a certifiable fact that wonderful fruits and vegetables make my summer meals more delicious.

But it’s not just the produce that makes me a better chef in the summer. Here are two other summer-centric things that bring out the best cook in me.

1. Summer’s Long Days Are Energizing

I don’t know about you, but for me, at least, the season’s blessing of long hours of sunlight somehow seems to expand all the possibilities for creating bountiful meals — even after a long day at the office.

Throughout most of the year, getting dinner on the table is a race against the clock. As the working day grows longer, and we answer yet another after-hours email, our plans for braising that veal shank get downgraded to quickly stir-frying some vegetables. When we finally walk through the door, exhausted, at a very dark 8 p.m., we wonder if we have the energy to press together a buttery grilled cheese.

But summer’s bright evening hours are invigorating: When the workday is done, it feels like there are still plenty of hours left to do whatever you want before bedtime. For me, that often involves creating more ambitious meals than I would be inclined to on a dark, cold winter night.

With sunlight streaming through my kitchen window, peeling, seeding, chopping, and puréeing mountains of tomatoes and cucumbers for a cooling gazpacho seems like a perfectly appropriate 8 p.m. task; likewise, there seems to be no rush to fire up the grill for an evening’s worth of charred skewers and blistered fruit.

2. Summer’s Laid-Back Nature Is Contagious

Which brings up another aspect of summer that improves my cooking: its no-pressure, laid-back nature. Normally, I’m a cook who’s touched with more than just a little type-A behavior. When hosting meals, I’ll meticulously plot my menu, make detailed shopping lists, and, if I’m feeling particularly frisky, even sketch out a timeline for how to best plow through my prep work.

This attention to detail has resulted in some memorable feasts — the three days I spent making a deliciously authentic mole de poblano come to mind — yet in spite of all my efforts, the meals haven’t been quantifiably better than some of my more on-the-fly creations.

Summertime’s freewheeling feel nurses my spontaneity; instead of reading recipes and drawing up lists, I tend to improvise in the kitchen. I create less picture-perfect but more soulful food. It tends to be more whimsical, colorful, and, at times, even tastier.

Sometimes, a messy, juicy watermelon-and-feta salad is every bit as satisfying as a labored-over three-course menu — and a lot more fun to make.

What’s your favorite part about cooking during the summer? Leave us a note in the comments.