Summer is my least favorite season and will remain so as long as I live in the South. I do appreciate watermelon, and farmers markets, and… maybe some other summery things I just can’t recall at the moment, but the fact is that our summers are hot, humid, and long, and we don’t have sprinklers to play in anymore. A consequence of my low threshold for being hot all the time is that my passion for cooking cools tremendously during the summer, when we keep our house quite a bit higher than standard room temperature to save on the electric bill, and turning on the oven never helps it feel more comfortable. To try and overcome the disinclination to do anything that exacerbates the heat (and thus makes me cranky), this summer I intend to explore the vast territory of salads and sandwiches. The potential for either goes far beyond a Caesar or a ham-and-cheese, and both require little to no oven use. The past two summers (the only in my history as a housewife) I wasn’t very innovative with meals; I was a bit too fixated on keeping grocery costs down by working from the pantry and not buying much produce. I was as a result turning on the oven to braise tough meats (cheap year-round), or serving tuna or pasta salad a little more often than anyone should have to eat them. This time around I’m going to use my brain and take advantage of the benefits of a well-stocked pantry (thanks Southern Savers), which means I have more money to spend on produce and fresh sandwich fixings.

One obstacle I’ll have to overcome is a chronic inability to have ingredients for salad on hand, starting with the lettuce. It only recently dawned on me that when you buy a head of romaine ($1.79) rather than those stupid 6 oz bags of pre-cut salad ($2 on sale, which is the only time I buy them), the difference in yield is at least 3:1. Way to finally do the math, dear. In my defense, I was unaware that there WERE heads of romaine at Publix; I’d only seen the super expensive hearts of romaine packages (3 thin and shabby looking hearts close to $4) and overlooked the blissfully dark green romaines and lovely red leaf lettuces, which didn’t even begin to turn reddish brown around the edges after one week in my fridge. I spend maybe 15 minutes washing and drying the whole leaves, then rolling them up in a kitchen towel and putting the whole bundle in an open plastic bag in the crisper. Then the rest of the week, I enjoy the convenience of a bagged salad, so that preparing a side or appetizer isn’t like another dish needing attention while I’ve got things to watch on the stove (I’m a bad multi-tasker and only have so much counterspace for prep work). That, obviously, can be applied year-round.

During the summer, we always have some sort of tomatoes on hand, and as long as I keep some interesting nuts and seeds around, with dressing that completes a very basic side salad. I also want to try some entree salads besides our staple, Cobb (though I want to know, can you really get any better than avocado AND bacon AND hard-boiled eggs AND blue cheese all on the same plate?), and I need to get up some kind of repertoire of flavorful dressings. I have a blue-cheese dressing with buttermilk that is to die for, but sometimes we want something lighter, and we haven’t been too impressed with my simple vinaigrette attempts so far. It’s probably because I don’t exactly splurge on my vinegars and oils. (Though I have officially placed Crisco Olive Oil on the Do Not Buy Even If Free list.)

If I am to make our bread for sandwiches, the oven will have to be on at least a couple times a week. I am determined to master ciabatta (promising steps were taken toward this goal last week) and the money saved by making our own bread is significant, so this is a non-negotiable. With rustic breads, baking several loaves at once to store in the freezer is not really an option because it fairly ruins the crust you work so hard to get. (If there is an option of which I’m not aware, DO enlighten me.) I’ll make the most of this by using the oven for other things while it’s on, e.g. roasted garlic and croutons for salad that night. Or dessert. I can always justify turning on the oven for a dessert.

Another category of oven-free meals I intend to make lots of is Thai curries. We love them with plain old chicken and occasionally shrimp, and even keeping them on the conservative side of the spice scale they pack in lots of flavor. Then each of us can customize spiciness with Sriracha. I made a large batch of green curry paste that turned out very well, and should provide plenty of curries before I have to make it again (it was a 2-hour ordeal because of the plethora of ingredients combined with the fact that my knife skills are nonexistent). Curries are fast and basically a one-skillet meal, plus mindless rice, and fewer dishes means less time cleaning up in a hot kitchen. And if I don’t like cooking in a hot kitchen in the summer, you can guess how much I like cleaning up after myself in a hot kitchen. So that’s my game plan. What are your favorite summer dishes?

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