Although the worst of the summer heat is supposed to be behind us, it’s small comfort: The “cooling” is a matter of only a few degrees; the humidity is unrelenting and still seems endless. And while nowadays most of us cope by dashing from one air-conditioned space to another, heavy-duty cooking, even in an artificially cool kitchen, is the last thing on our minds.

Fortunately, this endless hot season is when the base ingredients are at their freshest and most flavorful and need the least amount of help from us and the heat of the stove.

One of the secrets to coping with the heat is by cooking in stages.

What I mean is that there are a number of key ingredients that can be partly or fully cooked ahead, and not only stand up to it, but also may actually be improved by it. Cooking them ahead also increases their shelf-life in the refrigerator without compromising their flavor.

Two ever-popular main-dish staples of our summer tables that can be cooked ahead are our fresh, local shrimp and deboned, skinned chicken breasts. When there’s cooked shrimp and chicken in the refrigerator, we’re more than halfway to dozens of great summer dishes that won’t overheat us or the kitchen.

Unfortunately, we tend to fall into a two-note theme with those two: either boiling them for salad or grilling them to toss on top of a salad. But there’s so much more we can do, and grilling is not really something that can be done ahead.

The smoky flavor that’s so appetizing when they’re just off the heat turns harsh and stale after a couple of hours, especially when refrigerated.

Both shrimp and chicken breasts can be boiled (that is, gently poached) ahead, but because the breast is the largest and leanest muscle on the bird, without bones and skin to hold the flavor, successfully poaching deboned and skinned chicken breasts can be tricky. Pan-roasting them, however, boosts and concentrates their flavor and takes only minutes.

Shrimp are at their best cooked in their shells, but if you’re faced with shrimp that are already peeled, they, too, can be pan-roasted in a non-stick skillet over medium-high heat, with just enough oil to keep them from sticking. Just keep tossing them until they’re curled and pink and promptly take them off the heat.

 

 

To blanch, peel and seed fresh tomatoes

So many summertime recipes use the season’s fresh tomatoes. You can substitute canned ones, but you’ll miss out on one of the great flavors of summer if you do. The process of blanching, peeling and seeding them is a little time-consuming to be sure, but well worth it, and can be done ahead of time, so long as the tomatoes are cooked the same day. Makes about 2 cups.

Ingredients:

2 pounds ripe tomatoes

Directions:

1. Bring large teakettle filled with water to a boil. Stem tomatoes and cut an X in the bottom of each with sharp or serrated knife. Put into heatproof bowl and pour boiling water over to completely cover. Let stand 1 minute, drain, and let cool a few minutes.

2. Working over wire mesh sieve set into bowl to catch juices, core, peel and quarter tomatoes. Scoop out seeds into sieve. Cut tomatoes as needed for individual recipe and add to juices. Discard skins and seeds.

3. To make more than a day ahead, put in heavy-bottomed saucepan, bring to simmer over medium heat, and cook for 5-10 minutes, then cool, transfer to a storage container, cover, and refrigerate. They’ll keep for up to 5 days.

 

 

Perfect Poached Shrimp

The only quantities here are for the amount of water. The method is the same whether you’re cooking a pound or up to 5 pounds at once. Poached shrimp will keep for 3-4 days, covered and refrigerated.

1. Bring 3-5 quarts water to rolling boil in heavy-bottomed 6-8 quart pot over high heat (as little as 3 quarts for 1 pound but 4-5 quarts for anything from 2 to 5 pounds). While it comes to boil, get ready large pitcher or bowl of half ice and half water. Set large colander in sink.

2. Carefully add shrimp to boiling water, stir, and cover. Count 1 minute, remove the lid, and cook until just curled and pink. Small shrimp may already be ready, medium will take another half minute or so, extra-large or jumbo may take up to 2. Don’t overcook, especially if using in cooked dish later. Don’t let water start to boil again.

3. Immediately drain shrimp into colander, then pour ice water over. Toss until cooled. If liked, sprinkle lightly with sea salt, toss, and let sit another minute. You can also wait to season at time they’re used. Peel and if liked, devein and put into large zipper-locking storage bags or covered storage tubs. Seal well, and refrigerate until needed.

 

 

Shrimp with Tomatoes and Okra

The elements of a good gumbo in a quick-cooking sauté. Serves 4 without rice, 5-6 with rice.

 

Ingredients:

• 2 pounds (about 3 large or 4 medium) ripe tomatoes

• 1 pound very small, fresh okra, each pod no more than 3 inches long

• 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or unsalted butter

• 1 large yellow onion, trimmed, split, peeled, and cut into large dice

• 1 large green bell pepper, stem, core, seeds, and membranes removed, cut into large dice

• 1 small fresh green or red hot chile pepper, such as a jalapeño or cayenne, stem, seeds, and membranes removed, minced, or ¼ teaspoon crushed hot pepper flakes

• 2 large cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and finely chopped

• Salt

• 1½ pounds cooked and peeled Perfect Poached Shrimp (see recipe)

• 8 large or 12 small fresh basil leaves

• 4-6 cups hot cooked white rice, optional

 

Directions:

1. Blanch, peel and seed tomatoes (see recipe). Roughly chop tomatoes and add to their juice. Lightly rub okra under cold running water. Trim stem, but don’t remove cap.

2. Warm fat in a large, lidded skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat. When hot, add onion and both peppers and sauté, tossing constantly, until onion is translucent and softened, about 4 minutes. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant, about ½ minute. Add okra and toss until bright green, about 2 minutes.

3. Add tomatoes and juices and season well with salt. Cook briskly, stirring often, until okra is crisp-tender and tomato juices are thick, about 10 minutes. Add shrimp, and stir until warmed through, about 1-2 minutes. Turn off heat. Cut or tear basil into very small bits and stir into pan. Taste and adjust salt, adding more as needed, then serve at once in bowls as is or over rice.

 

 

Shrimp with Tomatoes and Olives

The ingredients list here may look long, but this goes together quickly. It will generously serve 4 as is, or can be stretched to serve up to 6 by serving it over cooked white rice. It can also be served over pasta. Serves 4 without rice, 5-6 with rice.

 

Ingredients:

• 2 pounds ripe tomatoes, preferably plum tomatoes (such as Roma)

• 1-2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

• ¾ cup green onion, thinly sliced, white and green part separated

• ½ cup celery, diced

• 2 large cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled and minced

• 1 small hot green or red chili pepper, stemmed, seeded, and minced, or ¼ teaspoon crushed hot pepper flakes

• 1 bay leaf

• 1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley

• 1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano

• 10-12 brine-cured black olives, pitted and sliced lengthwise

• 1 heaping tablespoon nonpareil capers, drained

• ½ cup dry white vermouth or dry white wine

• Salt

• 1½ pounds cooked, peeled Perfect Poached Shrimp (see recipe)

• 8-10 fresh basil leaves

• 4-6 cups cooked white rice, optional

 

Directions:

1. Blanch, peel, and seed tomatoes (see recipe). Dice and add them to their collected juice.

2. Put oil, white part of onion, and celery in a large sauté pan or skillet over medium heat. Sauté, tossing, until translucent and softened but not browned, about 4 minutes. Add garlic, hot pepper, and herbs. Sauté until fragrant, about ½ minute. Add tomatoes, olives, and capers, bring to a boil, and cook until liquid is evaporated and tomatoes begin to break down, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add vermouth and boil until almost evaporated. Season well with salt and simmer 1 minute.

3. Fold in shrimp and cook, stirring occasionally, until just heated through, 1-2 minutes. Turn off heat. Stir in basil and green parts of onions (holding back a few for garnish), taste and adjust seasonings, and serve at once, as is or over rice.

 

 

Pan-Roasted Chicken Cutlets

The seasoning here is minimal, since the object is to make a base main ingredient to which things are added. If you plan to serve them as they are, feel free to add pepper, fresh herbs, or a splash of wine or Worcestershire. Serves 4.

Ingredients:

2 large deboned and skinned chicken breast halves, about 12-14 ounces each

Extra-virgin olive oil or unsalted butter

Salt

Directions:

1. Trim chicken of any cartilage and membrane. Lay flat on work surface and, pressing flat with hand, carefully split each in half horizontally, making 2 equal flat cutlets.

2. Rub a heavy-bottomed, lidded 12- to 14-inch skillet with oil or softened butter and put over medium heat. When fat is hot but not quite smoking, season chicken cutlets lightly with salt, raise heat under pan to medium-high, and put in cutlets. Cook until browned and releasing from pan, about 3-4 minutes. (If chicken is sticking to pan, it isn’t ready to turn yet. It will release when fully browned.)

3. Carefully turn and cook until second side is browned and releasing from pan, about 2 minutes longer. Add splash of water, cover, and adjust heat to medium-low. Cook until chicken is just cooked through, about 2-3 minutes longer. Do not overcook.

4. Remove chicken from pan, deglaze pan with a few spoonfuls of water, stirring and scraping to remove cooking residue, and pour over chicken. Chicken can be eaten as is or allowed to cool, transferred to storage container, and refrigerated until needed. Will keep for up to 4 days.

 

 

Chicken Breasts with Sweet Peppers and Tomatoes

Serves 4 to 6.

 

Ingredients:

• 2 pounds fresh ripe tomatoes

• 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

• 1 medium green bell pepper, stem, core, seeds, and membranes removed, thinly sliced

• 1 medium yellow bell pepper, stem, core, seeds, and membranes removed, thinly sliced

• 1 medium red bell pepper, stem, core, seeds, and membranes removed, thinly sliced

• 1 large yellow onion, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled and thinly sliced

• Salt and ground cayenne pepper

• 4 Pan-Roasted Chicken Cutlets (see recipe)

• 2 tablespoons small whole oregano leaves, plus more for garnish

 

Directions:

1. Blanch, peel, core, and seed tomatoes (see recipe). Cut into thick wedges and add to bowl with juices.

2. Put oil, peppers, and onions in a large frying pan over medium heat. Sauté, tossing, until onion is translucent and softened and peppers wilted but still bright, about 4 minutes. Add tomatoes and collected juices and raise the heat to medium high. Season well with salt and cayenne and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat once again to medium, and simmer briskly until the juices are thick and the tomatoes are tender but not falling apart, about 20 minutes. Can be made ahead to this point. Remove from heat, let cool completely, and cover.

3. When ready to serve, gently reheat peppers and tomatoes and add chicken and oregano to pan. Spoon tomatoes and peppers over top, cover and let heat through, about 2 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings, let it simmer half a minute longer, and turn off the heat. Transfer cutlets to platter and spoon peppers and tomatoes over. Serve warm or at room temperature with, if liked, more oregano leaves scattered over top just before serving.

 

 

Chicken Breasts with Summer Squash

The squash can be made a couple of days ahead, so the final dish is assembled and heated in just a couple of minutes.

This is also lovely with pan-roasted firm, thick, fish fillets, such as sea bass, snapper, or pompano. Have the squash already made and transfer it to a bowl. Do the fish skin-side down first in the pan in which the squash cooked that is filmed with olive oil. When they’re turned, cook for about 1-2 minutes, depending on thickness, return the squash to the pan, and finish as for the chicken below. Serves 4.

 

Ingredients:

• 2 small zucchini, no more than 1 inch in diameter

• 2 small yellow squash (yellow zucchini or crooknecks)

• 2 tablespoons olive oil

• 1 small bunch scallions or small green onions, trimmed and sliced, white and green parts separated

• Salt and whole black pepper in a mill

• 1 tablespoon chopped fresh marjoram or oregano

• 4 Pan-Roasted Chicken Cutlets (see recipe)

• 8-10 fresh basil leaves, cut into julienne just before using

 

Directions:

1. Scrub both kinds of squash under cold running water. Trim and cut lengthwise into ¼-inch-thick slices, then cut each slice into ¼-inch-thick strips about 1½-inches long.

2. Put oil, white part of scallions, and both kinds of squash in large skillet or sauté pan over medium heat. Sauté until squash is almost tender and beginning to brown at edges, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Can be made ahead to this point. Remove from heat and let cool, completely, then cover. If making more than 4-5 hours ahead, refrigerate.

3. When ready to serve, gently reheat squash. Add chicken cutlets, herbs, and green parts of scallions. Spoon squash over top of cutlets, cover, and let heat through, about 2 minutes. Remove cutlets to platter. Stir basil into squash and spoon over cutlets. Serve warm.