Summertime is here again, and along with a sweatier commute and serious lemonade cravings comes the chance to give your summer menu a makeover with summer ingredients. You don’t need us to tell you ripe tomatoes are the classic (if not ultimate) expression of the season. But in a competitive market of chefs trying to out-farm-to-table one another, you’ll need more than tomatoes to keep a seasonal menu original.
Walking through the farmers market in summer is synonymous with the gently herbaceous scent of fresh basil. But some of the most nuanced summer dishes we’ve had this year included relative newbies to the dining scene in the United States—basil seeds. These babies have the mouthfeel of small tomato seeds, with the same slick texture but none of the acidity. Think tomato seed texture with the flavor of basil. If you have a kitchen garden, you can harvest
the seeds from basil plants. Otherwise, you can purchase basil seeds and hydrate them before use. Raw, they make a wonderful accent to summer’s tomatoes. In Chef Jesse Schenker’s recipe for Beef Carpaccio, Burrata, Tomato Jam, Porcini Purée, Basil Seeds, and Watercress
, the basil seeds play a textural back note in a playful take on a Caprese salad. 2008 South Florida Rising Star Chef Christopher Eagle
at the Viceroy Miami takes a more pared down approach to basil seeds, letting their delicacy sing in his Heirloom Tomato Salad, Basil Seeds, Burrata, and Spicy Basil
. We’ve also seen them set in a gelée
, atop many more summer salads
, and even in desserts.
The Nightshade family has its fare share of ghouls—Belladonna is poisonous—but it also spawned the tomato, tomatillo, and physalis. Physalis is sort of the exotic, sexier member of the family; the sweet, tart fruit grows in tropical and subtropical regions. It’s sometimes called the ground-cherry, or Cape gooseberry (or in my native England, the Japanese gooseberry), though incorrectly, as it’s no relation to the gooseberry. The cherry tomato-sized yellow fruit is protected by a papery casing, much like a tomatillo. Unless you plan on using the casing in presentation (it makes for a pretty flowery appearance when the fruit is dipped in chocolate) the fruit keeps longer in the refrigerator when the casing is peeled off. At Ze Kitchen Galerie
in Paris, Chef William Ledeuil
gives an Asian-inspired seafood dish a tropical, mildly acidic twang with physalis in Moules, Couteaux, Bulots, Aioli Gingembre, and Combawa: Marinated Mussels, Razor Clams, Whelk, Physalis, Ginger, and Combawa Condiment
. The tomatillo is a staple in Mexican food, and as such a lot more familiar to U.S. diners. But it still holds a few surprises when it’s featured in dishes like Torta de Lengua with Tomatillos and Breakfast Radishes
. Chef Ray Garcia
in Santa Monica gently cooks tomatillos and uses them to top a braised tongue sandwich, for an appreciative offal-crazed LA audience. Austin Chef Paul Qui
serves thinly sliced tomatillo with scallops, curry-apple gastrique, black olive powder, black lime salt, and corn flake tuile. The tomatillo looks almost like one element of an artist’s palette. And the dish is an artist’s exercise in balancing sweet, bitter, and salty flavors with the sour tomatillo—it hits all the senses.
Aureole Pastry Chef Jennifer Yee's Chilled Watermelon Soup with Galia Melon Sorbet, Pickled Cucumber, Blueberries, and Candied Olives
When it comes to nostalgia, nothing beats the kid-like joy of biting into a slice of ice-cold watermelon on a hot summer day. 2010 New York Rising Star Pastry Chef Jennifer Yee
juices fresh watermelon and seasons it simply with sugar and lime for a bowlful of July in her Chilled Watermelon Soup with Galia Melon Sorbet, Pickled Cucumber, Blueberries, and Candied Olives
. 2006 Washington DC Rising Star Chef RJ Cooper
of DC’s Rogue 24
compresses watermelon in his Compressed Watermelon, Iberico Lomo, Manchego, and Green Almonds
for a cheeky bite-sized play on melon and ham.
Lavender doesn’t always play well with food—when it’s overdone it verges on soapy. But when showcased just right, its aroma isn’t just floral; it’s also reminiscent of hard herbs like rosemary. And that’s no surprise, since next door to Provence’s lavender fields are her mountains, home to wild herbs like thyme and rosemary. Mixologist Lynnette Marrero
of New York’s Drinksat6
takes advantage of this natural affinity in her feminine Lavender Sage Sling cocktail
. Lavender honey—harvested from the hives of bees who feed on lavender nectar—is widely available and marries well with savory items like goat cheese for a simple cheese board or starter. You can also source the dried blossoms and store them in sugar like you would vanilla beans, or steep them in whipping cream before it’s whipped. At Chicago’s Floriole Bakery
, Pastry Chef-owner Sandra Holl
goes with the latter route in her Caramel Pot de Crème with Lavender, Caramel Canelé, and Pepita Brittle
. Caramel’s burnt sugars call for something mildly savory and aromatic like lavender to offset sweetness and flavors of caramelization.
Latin American communities have long brewed dried hibiscus flowers (Flor de Jamaica) with hot water. The tart brew can be sweetened with sugar and poured over ice in warm weather. You’ll find it in health food stores across the country. The dry, cranberry-like flavor has a refreshing quality that makes it a great choice in summer, and its brilliant vermillion color has made it a favorite with upscale tea companies. If your restaurant carries a tea that is bright red, chances are it contains some hibiscus. Its intense acidity requires some careful balancing, though. In his Herb-roasted Lamb, Salted Grapes, Hibiscus Emulsion, and Balsamic Reduction
, Chef Ryan Jaronik
of Brooklyn restaurant Benchmark
complements hibiscus's tartness with reduced balsamic vinegar, and uses the combination to balance the caramelized exterior of herb-kissed lamb and the saline quality of peeled salted grapes. And hibiscus works equally well in pastry, where acidity is a welcome counterpoint to sugar. Pastry Chef Heather Bertinetti
finds a soul mate for rhubarb’s tart-sweet flavor profile in a hibiscus-infused poaching liquid in her Deep Fried Sweet Polenta, Hibiscus-poached Rhubarb, Fresh Raspberries, Raspberry Sorbet, and Mascarpone Cream
. And let’s face it, that gorgeous ruby red of hibiscus doesn’t hurt the presentation either.