Summer seems to compress time. In the heat of a hot day appetites dwindle. The outdoor grill sees more of us than the indoor stove. Because of these summer influences, flavor matters more than ever.
That’s where sauces come to the rescue. They attract the eye, engage the senses and kindle summer-dulled appetites. When sauces pair with other foods they work their magic to synergistically heighten and enhance flavor. Ideally, the pairing complements both without overwhelming either.
Sauces drape a food, act as a bed underneath it or become an integral part of it — as in curry. It’s a reciprocal thing: Infuse the sauce flavors into chicken or shrimp and the chicken or shrimp infuse their flavors into the sauce. Italian cooks, instead of topping cooked pasta with sauce, will sometimes choose to finish cooking slightly undercooked pasta in the sauce, so that it will absorb more flavor. It’s all a win-win.
Although sauce-making can be tricky and sometimes complex, you’ll find that in summer sauces can be relaxed and less exacting. Many complex sauces get their flavor from “stratification” or layers of flavor as in reduction sauces with their layers of sautéed shallots, wine, broth and cream. Summer sauces don’t have to try so hard; they charm with their big-flavored, fresh ingredients.
Much of summer saucing takes its cue from warmer climates like Asia, the Mediterranean, India and Mexico where fresh, raw fruit or vegetable salsas, fruit-, yogurt- or tomato-purées and light, citrusy vinaigrettes prevail. Fresh herbs are abundant so why not make use of them with Italian-style raw herb, nut, vinegar and oil purées? Regardless of the season, a well-made sauce needs to have a distinctive yet balanced flavor, pleasing texture and consistency, with a complementary or contrasting color.
Begin your summer sauce quest by studying the menus at favorite dining spots — take special note of what chefs pair together. Scan your cooking magazines, cookbooks or google recipe contest winners. Think of classic combinations: salmon with dill-sour cream-cucumber sauce, aioli (garlic mayonnaise) drizzled over steamed asparagus — or not so classic combinations like mango, cilantro, jalapeño and avocado with grilled pork loin or roasted cherry tomatoes with cinnamon, parsley and brown butter over fish.
Summer sauces with their bright color and fresh flavor show us that contrast and complement are not just interesting—they are essential. With the right sauce you can entice the most finicky eater.
Although these summer sauces are quick to prepare, they still require a cook’s care and close attention to tasting. Consistency and flavor are all important. Consistency should fall somewhere between spoonable and pourable but never watery. The flavor must balance gracefully between acid, fat, salt, savory and sweet. My advice? Taste, taste, taste. Then elicit another trusted opinion. When the taste pulls you back for another bite and another, you’re probably there.
ASIAN PLUM SAUCE OVER GRILLED PORK TENDERLOIN
Yields about 4 to 6 servings
2 c. diced, pitted purple (prune) plums
1 t. minced ginger root
2/3 c. orange juice
1 to 2 T. maple syrup
2 t. cider vinegar, more to taste
2 to 3 t. Asian sesame oil
1 T. extra-virgin olive oil or canola oil
2 lb. trimmed pork tenderloin
Pour plums, ginger, orange juice, syrup and vinegar into a saucepan. Bring mixture to a boil, lower the heat, cover partially and simmer until plums are super tender and thickened, 15 to 20 minutes. Taste and adjust sweet and sour. Cool slightly and purée in a blender or food processor until smooth. Taste, season with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Adjust the flavors to suit you—it should taste a pleasantly sweet-sour. Stir in sesame oil.
Preheat a grill. Rub tenderloins with oil. Rest them at room temperature while grill heats. Before placing on grill, season tenderloins with salt and pepper. Cook until instant-read thermometer reads 150 degrees F. Remove pork from grill and allow it to rest 10 minutes in a warm spot, loosely covered with foil. Slice pork on an angle into 1/2-inch thick slices and serve drizzled with room temperature plum sauce.
— Adapted from “The Gourmet Prescription”
PASTA AND SALSA CRUDA
Yields about 4 to 6 servings
2 lb. ripe tomatoes (about 3 large or 4 medium), cored and cut into 1/2-inch dice, (about 4 c.)
1/2 c. good-quality extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 c. roughly chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/3 c. torn basil leaves
1 T. coarsely chopped fresh oregano leaves
1 medium clove garlic, peeled and minced
8 black Kalamata olives, finely chopped
1/4 t. freshly ground black pepper; more to taste
Pinch crushed red pepper flakes
Salt, as needed
1 lb. dried pasta like penne or rigatoni
Combine all of the ingredients, except the pasta, in a glass, ceramic or stainless bowl large enough to hold the tomatoes and the cooked pasta. Taste, mix well and let sauce sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes and up to 3 hours.
Heat a large pot of water to a raging boil. Toss in a tablespoon of salt and the pasta. Cook to al dente and drain. Immediately toss hot pasta into the sauce. Taste again and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.
— Adapted from “Fine Cooking”
SUMMER GREEN SAUCE
This is sauce is the essence of summer. It’s great with grilled meats, tossed on hot rice or pasta or on vegetables. You can vary the herbs — add oregano, substitute the basil for mint—or add anchovies for more flavor.
Yields 2-1/2 to 3 cups, enough 8 to 12 servings (or for 2 pounds pasta)
3 c. packed basil leaves
3 c. packed lightly chopped Italian flat leaf parsley leaves and tender stems
1 bunch green onions, trimmed and chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
Half of an 11-oz. bottle salad olives, drained
3-oz. bottle capers, drained
1/2 c. extra-virgin olive oil, more as needed
In a food processor, purée basil, parsley, green onions, garlic and lemon zest. Add olives, capers and lemon juice and purée until smooth.
With processor running, pour in enough oil to make a liquid consistency. You should get around 2-1/2 to 3 cups. This will keep a week or more refrigerated. Toss on steamed vegetables and quinoa or other grains like cooked rice.
SUMMER FRUIT SALSA
This is ideal served with grilled chicken, fish or shrimp. If you prefer to use local fruit substitute melons for mango and pineapple. The salsa will be mellower so you’ll need more lime juice.
Yields about 8 servings
1 avocado, halved, peeled and finely diced
1 large mango, peeled, pitted, and finely diced, about 2 cups
1-1/2 to 2 c. peeled and finely diced pineapple
1/2 c. finely diced green onions
3 T. fresh lime juice, more to taste
1/4 c. packed sliced cilantro
2 t. or more stemmed, seeded and minced jalapeño to taste
In a large bowl, combine avocado, mango, pineapple, green onions, lime juice, cilantro, and jalapeño. Season with salt. Rest salsa 20 minutes so flavors distribute.